Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road – which some people say is Australia’s answer to No Country for Old Men – is one of the best films I’ve ever seen.
A slow-burning and deeply satisfying modern-day Western set in outback NSW, it follows Aboriginal police officer Jay Swan, who is called back to his rural hometown to investigate the murder of a young girl. The film exposes an evil underbelly, addressing common themes such as local corruption, intimidation of small communities by criminals, and loss of innocence.
But it’s more than that. It has a greater importance, given its depiction of the lives of Indigenous Australians; racial tensions serve as the base of the film.
“It’s a conversation we should be having… [and] it resonates because it is a conversation people want to have,” says Aaron Pedersen, who stars as Swan (you might remember him from TV shows Water Rats or The Secret Life of Us).
Pedersen’s performance is a real corker, as proven by the Best Performance by an Actor he scooped at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards. The role first came about as he and Sen, who also has Aboriginal roots, crossed paths in 2006. “It was as simple as, ‘I’ve got a project for you’,” says Pedersen, “but it wasn’t until 2012 that I saw a script.”
He immediately felt a connection to the project, Sen, and the message of the film. “Ivan wrote it, and I performed it, because we wanted to have this conversation. We believed it was necessary,” Pedersen says. “I knew we were making something special and I knew Ivan wanted me to be the messenger for it and the voice for it.
“We were making a film for our ancestors; a film that, for Ivan and I, is our section of this country. It is the way we feel about things and the way we were brought up, so I knew we were making something that was genuine and truthful.”
The message is powerful. And yet, ironically, Pedersen’s character says very little. “I love what wasn’t being said,” he says. “We know what alienation is like, bigotry and not being around the place. We know that and how people react to it, so for us it was about putting all that body language and all that conversation on screen. Because of the cast, which includes people like Ryan Kwanten and Hugo Weaving, we were able to make that happen and bring it to life. That’s something people love about the film. When people aren’t talking it’s the most dangerous, I think.”
Sen successfully marries themes familiar to fans of Westerns to his vision of an Indigenous film with mainstream appeal. And Pedersen believes it’s important that Mystery Road has been made, erm, for the road so to speak.
“First and foremost we wanted to make something that our people could connect to and be proud of. But we also wanted to make something for people of the world, because they’re the broader audience and there are a lot of people out there hungry for Indigenous content from Australia.
“I hope it gets a chance to reach a global audience because that is why we made it. We made it for the world to see it and for people to sit down and enjoy. It is a beautiful story and I love the way Ivan approached it. I loved what he asked me to do, that he trusted me and believed in me, and that we were able to say what we wanted to say and not pull any punches, but not apologise either.”
The reactions from audiences so far have been varied and interesting. “It takes on different things to different people,” says Pedersen. “People come out of it feeling like they have been in a conversation with the characters. It says something to them. They don’t feel like the film has been pushed down their throats; Ivan has allowed you to personalise it.”
Even if the film is not commercially successful, Pedersen is proud of its message and hopes it makes a difference in its own way. “A lot of Australian films struggle anyway,” he admits. “It was good to make a film with a lot of authenticity to it, with strong Indigenous content. It is about Indigenous people, the first people, so we were embarking on something we hope allows the film industry to take the next step up in some ways, whether it be from an Indigenous story perspective or just an Australian story perspective.
“I just think, let’s start telling proper stories, stop romanticising Indigenous Australians and telling lies to the rest of the world. Let’s start being truthful, owning our history and start being mature, you know? If we have such a proud hybrid nation then let’s show the world how proud we are.”
Mystery Road is out in cinemas now.