The Australian Outback, the bush, has long ranked alongside the American West as a setting so powerful, vivid and rich that it becomes a genre in its own right. MAD MAX, WALKABOUT, WAKE IN FRIGHT, THE PROPOSITION, PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT, CROCODILE DUNDEE and this year’s (under-seen) TRACKS and THE ROVER are all very different films, but they could all be grouped together under a single genre thanks to their shared setting.
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the Australian Outback with the American West, because of the vast number of westerns throughout movie history. But the reason for the comparison is plain to see. The Outback is geographically and visually similar – in colour and landscape – to the Wild West. Even more to the point, both settings embody the idea of a frontier: of white people pressing forwards through a rugged, ‘uncivilised’ landscape to claim land for themselves, in search of a sense of identity and presumably a better life than the one they left behind. But of course, as we know, these lands were not really uncivilised. Aboriginals and Native Americans inhabited the stunning terrains long before the appearance of the first Stetson. These were their lands, filled with their languages, stories, cultures and identities.
This confrontation between cultures and territories – which has fuelled many a revisionist western, and indeed has been a background theme since the beginnings of the genre – is also the crux of Ivan Sen’s excellent crime drama MYSTERY ROAD. Set in and around the rural town of Winton, Queensland, the film opens with the discovery of a murdered Aboriginal girl, her body ravaged by wild dogs. Detective Jay Swan, who grew up in the area and is of Aboriginal descent, returns from the city to investigate. What unfolds is a murder mystery involving police corruption, institutionalised racism, and personal and collective demons.
Writer-director Sen makes no apologies for the evident influence of the western on his film, and Swan (brilliantly played by Aaron Pedersen) channels the righteous but troubled lawman character so common in westerns to a tee. But despite the strong American influence, MYSTERY ROAD is very much an Australian film, right through to the violent (and outstandingly well orchestrated) final shootout. This Aussie-ness chimes through the film, through its characters, the community it portrays and the situations it uncovers. It’s a story about legacies of racism and colonialism – a story that has been going on since white people first arrived in this land.