Film Reviews

Mystery Road & Exposed

Published October 19, 2013

Before Mel Gibson got a real American accent, the film Mad Max (1979) was dubbed to make it acceptable to a United States audience. Is that Australian twang still a barrier to international success? Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road should answer this question. The accents could hardly be more Australian but the film is pitched firmly to a global audience. Although overseas viewers may find the settings exotic, the characters and storyline will have a feeling of familiarity.
The action is set in the dry, dusty surounds of Winton, in central west Queensland – the same location that John Hillcoat used for The Proposition (2005). That movie was a period Western set in the outback, and Mystery Road is also a genre movie. There are elements of the classic Western – a lawless town being taken on by a flawed but honest sheriff – but Mystery Road is really an Australian film noir.
It begins with the discovery of the corpse of a young indigenous girl in a culvert by a lonely roadside. The officer assigned to the case is Jay Swann (Aaron Pedersen), a detective of Aboriginal descent who has recently returned from training in “the Big Smoke”. It hasn’t been a happy homecoming. Jay’s white colleagues treat him with the same casual racism that characterises all their dealings with the black population. To his own people, who have no reason to love the coppers, he is a traitor and an outcast.
Like all existential heroes, Jay is a man of few words, estranged from his wife and daughter. He finds it hard to get a word out of anyone apart from a garrulous old uncle, and falls back on standard procedural methods. Little by little a picture emerges of a community run by organised crime and corrupt police – where teenage girls prostitute themselves for drugs and nosey cops get eliminated.
The murdered girl turns out to be a friend of Jay’s daughter, which makes him realise that the evil in this town has now touched his own family. After another girl is murdered he knows the criminals are growing more violent and brazen, but his growing sense of urgency is not reciprocated by his boss (Tony Barry). A couple of dead black girls is no reason to stir up trouble. Another officer, John from the drug squad (Hugo Weaving), is even more adamant that Jay keep out of matters that don’t concern him.
We know that Jay, in his grim, taciturn way, is not going to back down. The story locks into a slow spiral, where the tension builds towards a violent conclusion.
It may sound like a familiar film noir formula, but Sen has made a stylish, original feature that contrasts the spaciousness of the outback landscape with the claustrophobic life of a small, isolated town. Whenever Jay gets in his car we switch to an aerial shot, making the streets look like a closed grid. In the desert the emptiness goes on forever. Place names such as “Mystery Road”, “Massacre Creek” and “Slaughter Hill” bring a Gothic dimension to this sun-drenched landscape.
Sen is especially good on the uneasy relations that exist between blacks and whites. He portrays the cycle of  institutionalised racism, poverty, abuse and degradation, without preaching or moralising. This has the effect of making the problems seem deeper and more intractable, which is horribly close to reality.
Even the murders of black women, and the police’s half-hearted efforts to solve these crimes, have real life parallels. Sen was partly inspired by the case of a distant cousin who was murdered and dumped in a similar manner to the victim in the film. The killings of Aboriginal women seem to atttract remarkably little attention in the media, whereas a murdered white woman is front page news.
It’s obvious that Sen can identify with his lead character, Jay, caught between the black and white worlds. When the detective says: “I’ve been in the middle my entire life,” it doesn’t sound like an enviable position.
In his working methods Sen is an unusually complete filmmaker who likes to use the same small, familiar team on every project, and take personal charge of many different aspects of a production. For Mystery Road he has even composed the music, which is sparse and understated, in keeping with the general ambience of the location.
The story is punctuated by touches of symbolism, as in a scene when Jay uses three full beer bottles for target practice. Is he getting his revenge on the grog that has seduced both his wife and his late father? The fact that Jay scores two hits and a miss seems vaguely ominous as we know he will eventually have to use this gun. It may simply be a sign of his own imperfections. His willingness to put his career ahead of his family has left him a lonely man.
Mystery Road features strong performances from Aaron Pedersen in the lead role, and Hugo Weaving as the bent cop. It’s harder to accept Ryan Kwanten as one of the local villains, as he is too baby-faced to be believed.
The one scene that completely strains credulity is when Jay tails another car. It may be a staple of the film noir genre, but surely not in a town the size of Winton. Apart from this small aberration there is nothing that disrupts Sen’s skilful portrait of a township where the darkest anxieties can flourish in broad daylight.
[yframe url=’’]
Mystery Road
Australia, rated M
113 mins, 
Written & directed by Ivan Sen; starring Aaron Pedersen, Hugo Weaving, Tony Barry, Ryan Kwanten, David Field, Tasma Wilton, Jack Thompson, Damian Walshe-Howling 
I’m slightly limited in my choice of a second film this week, because I’ve been travelling and have yet to see Diana, which would have been the obvious candidate. Instead, I was left with two new documentaries – Robert Stone’s Pandora’s Promise, which was given a special preview around Australia last week, and Exposed, a film about the Neo-burlesque scene in New York, which may be seen at the Golden Age Cinema and Bar in Sydney.
Even though Pandora’s Promise had the more weighty credentials, it turned out to be an apologia for the nuclear power industry – dry, one-sided and ultimately unconvincing. Exposed, on the other hand, by veteran avant-garde filmmaker, Beth B., was full of surprises.
I remember once watching a documentary about heavy metal bands, where every long-haired headbanger spoke like a college professor. In Exposed, an similarly unlikely crew of exhibitionists and self-professed misfits discourse with great eloquence on their routines, analysing the reasons these antics appeal to an audience.
The most startling is probably Mat Fraser, a thalidomide victim born with two tiny arms that resemble flippers. On stage, he says, he “channels everyone else’s imperfections”, thereby allowing his audience to feel better about themselves. For his own part, he claims: “It normalises me. I become more normal by highlighting my difference.”
The entire film is a meditation on what is normal. The transsexual Rose Wood, argues that his/her extreme performances prompt viewers to ask this question of themselves.
One swiftly realises that Neo-burlesque is more akin to performance art than to any strip-tease or cabaret routine. Most of the performers have political points to make about religion, sexuality, consumerism or body image. If those points can be made with humour, they are more likely to strike home. Some performers, such as Julie Atlas Muz, have already been invited to take part in major art events such as the Whitney Biennial, where she attended the opening naked.
World Famous ‘Bob’ is a woman who spent the first part of her career playing the role of a man playing a woman. In later life, as her feminine traits became impossible to conceal, she has reverted back to her original gender. When women ask her: “How do we cover up cellulite?”, she replies: “With glitter and a spotlight. Make it sparkle and let ‘em see it.”
The subject matter may be twisted, but the format of this film is entirely straight, featuring a series of talking heads interspersed with examples of some graphic performances. All the interviewees are insiders and True Believers. Beth B. makes no attempt to speak to anyone who is critical of the Neo-burlesque movement, perhaps assuming that anyone who didn’t like this stuff must be too straight, too prudish or reactionary.
In fact we are watching a group of people who have convinced themselves their lifestyle is the definition of freedom and the antidote to the stifling conventions that rule other people’s lives. “Woman,” says World famous ‘Bob’, “is a choice.” Rose Wood, who admits to being celibate for almost 30 years, says (s)he is seeking: “that simple place, that unencumbered response to life… The simple joy of who we are.”
One imagines someone sitting cross-legged under a tree, rather than whirling around the stage as a trouserless Rabbi.
There is a degree of snobbery among these performers, who see themselves as a totally different proposition to mere strip-tease artistes. Despite an abundance of nudity and overt sexuality the aim is to engage with the viewer on another level altogether. It’s not an intellectual exercise but more of a catharsis – confronting taboos and releasing pent-up energies. For both performer and viewer it comes across as an elaborate form of therapy.
If Neo-burlesque remains a minor artform it may not be because society rejects such rebellious gestures, but because most people probably don’t feel much need to use their bodies “in a new way”. There may be a pleasing sense of freedom in vulgarity and transgression, but if it wasn’t for so-called polite society and its boring ways, these purveyors of outrage would all be out of a job.
[yframe url=’’]
USA, rated R18+
77 mins,
Written & directed by Beth B.; starring Mat Fraser, Rose Wood, World Famous Bob, Julie Atlas Muz, Dirty Martini, Bunny Love, Tigger!, Bambi the Mermaid, James Habacker