An Indigenous detective (Aaron Pedersen) returns to the Outback to investigate the murder of a young girl.

Outback case crawls towards action-packed finale.

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: There is slow burn and then there is Mystery Road, writer-director Ivan Sen’s languid, dusty smalltown western set in a Queensland hinterland rife with racial tension, social malaise and organised crime. Superficially a murder investigation procedural, it is rather more effective as a psychological drama at the centre of which is an Aboriginal police officer increasingly at odds with his department, his family and his people.

more effective as a psychological drama

From its striking opening image, in which a truckie finds the body of a slain local girl under a lonely stretch of open highway, Sen is determined to explore what lies beneath the simmering surface. His is a narrative full of ambiguous visual cues that plays with perceptions of time and place, suggesting this is an ageless Australia; cars driven by key characters range from the vintage meat-wagon of local coroner Bruce Spence to the souped-up '70s-era Holden Statesman of the bad guys to the latest sports sedan of our hero. Men and the roads on which they choose to travel (a popular motif in Australian film history) is a prominent theme in Sen’s work.

In almost every scene is Aaron Pedersen, whose potential for leading man stardom has clearly been undervalued by local film producers. He plays Detective Joe Swan, the good sheriff (note the none-to-subtle white cowboy hat) amongst a lot of ambiguously bad people, such as his Sargeant (Tony Barry) and a charismatic old-school detective (a compelling Hugo Weaving) with whom Swan clashes, however succinctly. They oversee a township in decline; the Indigenous population has been marginalised, drugs and alcohol abuse abound and a criminal element is taking hold. Worse, Aboriginal teenage girls are taking to prostitution with fatal consequences; the dead girl ran in the same circles as Swan’s own daughter, from which he is estranged.

Pedersen’s Swan often seems like a dog protecting his territory, constantly driving to the most far-flung of locales in his desire to have right done; bite marks on the victim and ongoing references to and constant presence of 'wild dogs’ as part of the investigation suggest as much. The personality of the town itself is revealed via a series of cameos from the likes of David Field, Jack Thompson, Damian Walshe-Howling, Roy Billing, Ryan Kwanten, Zoe Carides, Tasma Walton and the great Jack Charles. The divide that exists between blacks and whites, young and old, rural values and big city smarts are all explored to varying degrees via these vividly realised bit parts.

In the film’s first half, Sen all but shunts the murder investigation aside, preferring to strengthen the audience’s understanding of and sympathy towards the key players. In the absence of the usual crime-scene chitchat and forensic gabble, acts one and two might prove a little too understated for those expecting tension and melodrama. Some convenient use of deus ex machina and a barrage of red herrings might further test the patience of those in the mood for a crime story, but genre machinations do not seem to be the major concern of Sen. When violent gunplay finally takes a backseat to taut drama, Sen proves he is perfectly capable as a director of action sequences; the climactic stand-off is terrifically involving.

Most recently, Patrick Hughes’ Red Hill covered similar terrain; there are clearly also elements that remind one of Ray Lawrence’s Lantana, Nick Parson’s Dead Heart (also featuring Pedersen) and, of course, the Charles Chauvel classic, Jedda. Examining the difference in cultural, social and gender roles in Australian society against a traditionally tough rural setting, all within the cinematic milieu of western iconography, has proven enticing to some of this nation’s best filmmakers. Mystery Road is further evidence of that.

See also: 2014 North Korea film festival screens Mystery Road