‘Mystery Road’ Is Australia’s Answer To ‘True Detective’

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Mystery Road

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Can a film series transition to television and still be great? More often than not, the answer is ‘no’. But Mystery Road, a new six-part series from the ABC, has proven itself the exception to that rule. Adapted from two different Australian film thrillers, 2013’s Mystery Road and 2016’s Goldstone, Mystery Road: The Series continues to conduct some of Australia’s most vital and racially-charged conversations.

Ivan Sen’s cinematic one-two punch Mystery Road and Goldstone were explosive reflections of contemporary Australian culture, packaged as outback crime thrillers. Jay Swan (portrayed in career-defining performances by Aaron Pedersen) immersed the audience in issues too often drowned out by the noise of morning show sound bites and misplaced talk-back outrage: drugs infiltrating Indigenous communities, underage prostitution and racial bias in law enforcement. Goldstone cast light on the behemoth that is the mining industry, which uses its seemingly all-encompassing power and influence to strangle Indigenous peoples out of land, wealth, and cultural artefacts.

The series is set between films, in the Eastern Kimberly region of Western Australia. After a mysterious disappearance of a young Indigenous man on an outback cattle station, local police sergeant Emma James (played by Judy Davis) is joined by Detective Jay Swan to expedite the search. Emma is deeply rooted in the town; her family own and her brother Tony Ballantyne (Colin Friels) operates the station in question.

Ernie Dingo, Deborah Mailman and Tasma Walton all also appear in the series, making this one of the most star-studded Australian TV events of recent memory.

Australia’s Answer To True Detective?

Season one of True Detective balanced the edge-of-your-seat intrigue of serial killings in the bramble of Louisiana’s swamplands and the lawmakers battling to overcome political interference, self sabotage and institutional “looking the other way.”

Mystery Road: The Series doesn’t feature the same grime, but the rugged Australian outback is a vast and scary setting where going missing feels like a fact of life. This disappearance feels suspicious from the outset — when you consider that missing man Marley Thompson (Aaron McGrath) is an up-and-coming AFL star, the way he vanishes suggests that either he doesn’t want to be found, or warns of a force more terrifying than this small team of officers can handle.

Local institutions are against the investigation too — from land councillor Keith Groves (Dingo), who is willing to intervene to protect the reputation of a ‘cash-cow’ local footballer, to Ballantyne, who’s happy to sweep the drama of missing workers under the rug to make way for his land sale.

Neo-noirs tend to begrudge the decline of old fashioned values and morality, but in both Mystery Road and True Detective, those values are a mask covering up sinister truths. Jay and Emma’s tense partnership causes the right amount of friction to agitate and unravel the multiplying suspects and the carousel of interference affecting this case.

Black And White

Noir movies, according to legendary movie critic Roger Ebert, are “either shot in black and white, or feel like they were.”

The Mystery Road series, like the movies that inspired it, are shot in the shades of black and white Australia. Jay Swan’s Indigenous cop is an outlier in a disenfranchised Indigenous population. He carries the weight of his profession’s statistical bias against indigenous Australians; as he’s driving through Indigenous neighbourhoods he can’t escape apprehensive looks filled with unease and betrayal.

The series gives its characters fearlessly authentic and topical burdens to bear. Larry Dime, Marley’s Uncle, is released from prison hoping to support in the search for Marley, but his inescapable past takes focus away from the missing boy at hand. He represents a horrific statistic — that despite making up only 2 percent of Australia’s population, 27 percent of the full-time adult prison population are Indigenous. Whatever Larry’s charge and whatever Marley is being accused of, Deborah Mailman’s Kerry is desperate to assert her position and keep her family from being swallowed by the system.

And Tasia Zalar’s Shervorne Shields — a victim of sexual abuse — struggles to retain custody of her daughter, a depiction of how much harder Indigenous parents have to fight to keep their families together.

The Leading Women Of Mystery Road

Director Rachel Perkins makes women in this outback crime more visible than ever. Rather than positioning the show’s female characters as victims or seductive forces, she assembles a strong core group of women who guide Jay and the series.

Judy Davis is phenomenal as Emma; conveying unwavering toughness and deep compassion through each turbulent moment in the series. She’s one of a raft of terrific female performances that defy the genre conventions. Jay’s wife, Mary Swan (Walton) is bold, tackling her husband’s hypocrisy head on and having it out with him in public. Crystal (Madeleine Madden) is a young woman intent on starting fresh, but makes brash and impulsive decisions that threaten to draw her into this investigation’s growing quagmire.

Jay’s power in the series is to make the forgotten feel seen. In a lot of ways, Mystery Road: The Series is the show that contemporary Australian audience deserve — and the one we need right now.

Mystery Road: The Series is available to watch on the ABC’s iView.

Blake Howard is a film critic and host of the One Heat Minute podcast. Find him tweeting here: @blakeisbatman.