Teasing Threads – Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: Ivan Sen’s ‘Mystery Road’

Chris Palazzolo revisits Mystery Road Diected by Ivan Sen 2013

Mystery Road 22In Ivan Sen’s outback thriller, Mystery Road, there is a recurring high angle shot of the indigenous detective’s car driving from one address to another along the streets of a dusty Queensland town. In earlier film parlance we would call this a helicopter shot. But the digital clarity of the imagery, the lines of shade that relieve each kerb and letterbox, roof-gutter and fence, would seem to suggest a satellite shot, a kind of detail from a global google map; an all-seeing technology that makes no judgement about what it reveals, but leaves us to invest with our own meanings.

I start with this motif because there is an ambiguity at the heart of this film, and that ambiguity centres on the function of the detective, Jay Swan, played by Aaron Pedersen. Swan is working in his hometown, investigating the murders of two local girls who appear to have been mixed up in a drug and prostitution racket. His investigations are stonewalled by the indigenous families because they see him as selling out by becoming a cop, and by other detectives who are working on the same cases. In accordance with the detective genre, the narration is entirely restricted to Swan’s point of view. This makes every character we see a potential suspect, because the single point of view leaves much of their personalities and activities in shadow; we only see what they choose to reveal to Swan, or what his skill as a detective manages to trick out of them.  Ultimately the motives of his flip-floppy colleagues (are they corrupt or are they working undercover) are revealed by a coincidence of a double-bust which inevitably leaves one wondering whether Swan was ever needed in the first place. I suppose this question goes to the motives of the senior detective (played by Tony Barry) for hiring Swan in the first place; to investigate the murders, or to watch the other Ds. These ambiguities are never cleared up. And the shoot-out at the climax only serves to obscure them more. All that’s left for Swan to do in his town is to reconcile with his estranged family, which, while a worthy sentiment, is an odd note for the film to end on, as if implying that Swan had been out of his depth all along.

What the presence of Swan does do is downplay the politics of aboriginal grievance. There is no ambiguity about the logic of race conflict that makes the murders possible, and responsibility is thrown on the doorsteps of indigenous families’ homes. It’s their obstinacy that exposes them to victimisation by a criminality which responds to opportunity, not race. The crooks may be local white boys, but they’re merely replaceable puppets in a criminal economy as natural to these towns as highways and freight depots. I think it’s telling that the only overtly racist talk spews from the mouth of one of the crooks, as if racism is merely a personality defect denoting an intrinsic ‘bunnydom.’

Like a detail isolated on a google map, Swan is a privileged but uninvolved witness to the patterns of crime and struggle in regional Australia. His aboriginality is the key to the legally mute aboriginal families; his police badge access to the invidious position of police having to stitch these families, sometimes brutally and with tragic consequences into the fabric of white law, thus protecting them from the depredations of white crime.

– Chris Palazzolo


Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and manager of one of the last video shops in the world – Network Video, Roleystone.

You can find out more about Teasing Threads here:  https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2015/07/10/introducing-chris-palazzolos-teasing-threads-sundry-film-and-literary-criticism/

The Mystery Road website can be found at http://www.mysteryroadmovie.com/