Synopsis: Australian cop investigates a murder in the outback. (Streaming on Amazon Prime)
I’ve been reading a lot of plays lately, so if you’ll indulge my set up…
Jay Swan, A coppa (cop) of Aboriginal descent, a real wowser (strait-laced person), partially absent father of Crystal
Sarge, Old geezer who is mysteriously ambivalent about discharging his duties
Johnno, Another copper, a shanky (dubious) bastard
Mary, Jay’s ex-wife, an alco(holic), negligent mother of her & Jay’s daughter, Crystal
Old Boy, Elderly Aboriginal man who’s got all the furphy (gossip) on the neighbors
Middle of woop woop (nowhere) in Queensland, Australia. Lonely highway stretches bordered by sheep stations that seem devoid of sheep. In town, a cluster of derro (derelict) houses with red, dusty yards, laid out on a grid.
Rural Crime is not a myth. And in Australia’s outback it’s not all hopping roos and laughing kookaburras. Not with place names like Massacre Creek and Slaughter Road. Consider yourself forewarned.
Killers in big cities face the obstacle of too many potential witnesses; this is why the safest place in NYC is always crowded Times Square. But in sparsely populated areas they can get up to all manner of nefariousness.
Mystery Road is set in the outback, far from Queensland’s Gold Coast. And far from water. (Winton, where MR was filmed is a fifteen hour drive from the capital city, Brisbane.) The movie opens late at night along a desolate highway where a truckie (trucker) pulls over to inspect a problem on his rig. He gets more than he bargains for when he spots a dead body.
Copper Jay Swan Aaron Pedersen is on duty, newly back on the job after training in the city. The sun has already risen when he gets on the scene because apparently his precinct covers a few thousand square kilometers. The grizzled old sargeant (Tony Barry) meets Jay at the scene. The victim is a young teen Aborigine, Julie whom Jay recognizes. Sarge tells Jay that he’s the man for the job, although he’s never led a murder case. Oh, and by the way, they don’t have any manpower or resources to help him out.
Jay zooms back to town in his souped-up, very loud cop car. He gets out of his vehicle and surveys the scene as the sun beats down: a woman calls out numbers to a gaggle of kids playing bingo on a patch of yard. He has to stop at a few houses to inform the victim’s mother and interview classmates of Julie’s. Most of the adults tell him to rack off. Before he leaves the neighborhood he goes over to an old man watching the kids play bingo. Hey, Old Boy, can you tell me about Julie? Fortunately for Jay, Old Boy (Jack Charles) is the town gossip and reports that the girl was on drugs and solicited truckies along the highway.
Uh-oh, there’s a personal connection…Jay’s daughter Crystal (Tricia Whitton) was a classmate of the victim. He stops at his ex-wife Mary’s (Tasma Walton) who can’t stand him. She sports bruises on her face, put there by her loser boyfriend who glares at them from the front steps. Jay brushes off her barbs and goes to talk to his daughter. (Uh, shouldn’t he call in another officer to investigate domestic abuse?) Crystal says she didn’t know the victim (a lie?) and, no, she doesn’t do drugs (another lie?).
Jay seems to work eighteen hour days on account of the no-help policy at work and rockets back to the scene of the crime. He questions the tough old cuss owner of the bordering sheep station. The guy says he didn’t see or hear anything and asks if Jay is a “black tracker. No disrespect intended.” We know better; disrespect was intended. See, Jay is of Aboriginal heritage. When Jay interviews the rancher’s son, he’s a racist too! I already didn’t like this guy because he is a roo shooter, saying that’s what he was doing with his bogan (redneck) mates on the night of the murder. He tells Jay that he and the other jackaroos (ranch hands) don’t usually tolerate “dark breeds.” Jay has had it! He declares : You know that really hurts! JK. He doesn’t let the PoS rile him up.
I like Jay — he seems like one of the few sober and/or honest people in town. Also, he’s plain spoken and asks direct questions. Not so with Sarge and the officer who seems to be his right hand man, Johnno. They both speak in riddles. Over an amber (beer, 4 X’s, of course) at the local pub, Sarge might say something like: I once knew a sheila, lived with a pom. Liked her tea, I reckon. I think he was telling Jay to not investigate any VIPs or maybe it had to do with the upcoming raid on the local bingo racket. Sure, arrest the ten year olds while there are murderous adult drug dealers rolling through town.
Johnno is more threatening than Sarge. He’ll playfully drive Jay off the road so he can lean into his car window and ask him: Ever kick a derro in the nuts?! (laughs wildly while Jay remains poker-faced) Nah! Y’er a good polly. Fair dinkum! Jay shouldn’t have to put up with Johnno’s menacing horseplay.
The best thing about Johhno is that he is played by Hugo Weaving…LoTR‘s Master of Rivendell! HW brought the half-elven Elrond to life. Also, he’s fantastic as V in V is for Vendetta. HW manages the trick of being good in his dramatic roles while also being unintentionally funny. To me, anyway.
Johnno was transferred from another police force for sketchy behavior, but Sarge tells Jay that he never asked what he did. Good detective work, Sarge. Johnno’s often in Sarge’s office chewing the fat, that is when he’s not flashing an oily smile at passersby or running his colleague off the road. His most prominent characteristic is that he leaves his shirt unbuttoned, revealing lots of hairy chest. Maybe this is why he had to leave the Big Smoke (big city, possibly Sydney). Perhaps one too many fellow officers complained to Human Resources about how uncomfortable his naked, hirsute chest made them.
Poor Jay, he has a lot to contend with what with Johnno threatening him with an unwanted bromance, his bludger (lazy) boss Sarge and his surly ex-wife, Mary. I mean while Jay is just trying to do his job, his ex spends her days getting boozed and playing at the pokies (slot machines). At one point, she hurls invective at him and tells him he is “ten years too late” to be expressing parental concern about their daughter. She finishes by screaming s at him that, At least I know who I am! Maybe he should transfer to the coast and bring his daughter with him.
I felt he could use a change from the dusty inland anyway, but then I thought that Queensland might be more than just a good setting for a mystery, that it might be a fascinating ecosystem. Turns out that the outback features plenty of flora and fauna in spite of the damnable lack of water. At least the aridity keeps the salties & freshies (crocodiles) away.
There are kangaroos, and dingoes and feral camels in the sunburned country. And beautiful plants like desert peas dressed with vivid red petals, and after a good rain, Andamooka lilies the color of pale sunshine. And I saw online that there are red gum trees in the outback. These aromatic trees like water (don’t we all) and apparently there are waterways cutting through central Queensland….and water means… crocs! Now I know why there are people and roos out there in the drylands — they are trying to avoid the crocs! Good move. I think I’ll stay super safe well north of the equator.
I wish Jay the best in solving his case and as for Johnno– button-up your shirt in the office, mate.
FOR ANOTHER OUTBACK MYSTERY … check out Eric Bana in The Dry
P.S. A sequel, Goldstone (2016) and a Mystery Road (2018) series follow Jay Swan’s cases.
P.P.S. The area around Winton is famous for containing a large number of dinosaur fossils from the Cretaceous age. Check out the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum in Winton here.
P.P.S. Hugo Weaving’s niece, Samara Weaving makes an appearance as the widow of a cop. She’s since appeared in Picnic at Hanging Rock (2018) and Nine Perfect Strangers. She’s also looks strikingly like another Aussie, Margot Robbie.
Movie Loon’s Movie Review Shortcut:
Cut to the Chase: Slow at times, but the suspense builds in the last half of the flick.
Humor Highlight: Hugo Weaving as Johnno.