I was lucky enough to attend a screening of Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road on Monday, overcoming some travel/timing logistic complications (and, frankly, bad directions posted on the Hamptons Film Fest website) to arrive just in the nick of time. Fortunately all of the frustrations and challenges (including having to sprint from one end of East Hampton to the other after being misdirected to the main ticket office– NOT the screening venue– by the aforementioned website) ended up being very much worth it, and I’m thrilled to be able to recommend this film to all thinking audiences, without reservation.
It should probably said that, as a person running a Hugo Weaving fan blog, I could be accused of lacking objectivity. 😉 But over the years, I’ve alienated a lot of people because I think being a good fan means being objective and true to one’s own tastes and values, not in gleefully rubber-stamping everything an actor or artist does with equal abandon. While I’ll automatically see most–but definitely not ALL– of Hugo Weaving’s films, I certainly haven’t loved them all equally. Some end up being guilty pleasures (hellooooo Wolfman!) and others are disappointing despite Hugo’s solid performances (The Tender Hook, Strange Planet) and the less said about the post-Agent Smith one-dimensional cartoon villain roles, the better. I’m having a hard time building up much enthusiasm for the next Hobbit installment either, because, while the first wasn’t an outright failure, it was a bit of a slog, reinforcing my belief that actors and directors shouldn’t keep returning to their most famous work expecting lightning to strike in the same place. Also, I have no strong assurance Hugo Weaving is actually in The Desolation of Smaug very much. (That said, I will see the film and hope PJ has worked out his pacing issues.)
Having (mostly) completed my review, I’ll warn readers that, in spite of taking care not to give too much away, I probably have given too many hints about some things. All lengthy reviews wander into that territory. So if you want Mystery Road to remain… well… mysterious, please read this and other detailed reviews after you’ve seen the film. But I do strongly encourage you to see it.
Mystery Road has received generally warm reviews and very few outright negative ones, but there have been regular gripes about pacing and questions left unanswered. Since I’m assuming most fans reading this are familiar with the film’s plot synopsis through trailers, previews and other reviews, I won’t spend a lot of time going over that. I think too many reviewers have already divulged too much on that score. But I do want to dispute a lot of the negative charges leveled at the film by critics who have trouble sitting still and paying attention. Yes, the film is long, but not too long. I frankly wouldn’t edit a frame of it. The plot doesn’t meander very much, and is blessedly free of the sort of red herring obfuscation most US procedurals (and too many UK procedurals) lean heavily on. Every scene either has a direct bearing on the mystery’s solution or elucidates the dire circumstances various suspects, witnesses and other locals are up against. I was at rapt attention through the whole thing, and thought that the film answered most of the pertinent questions about the crime at the heart of the story. Of course, the social unrest and race/class tension that permeate the town and story are less easily resolved, and Sen doesn’t try to lecture viewers or offer easy solutions. I will definitely want to watch the film again (probably many times) to tease out some minor character details and links in Jay Swan’s evidenciary chain, but I wasn’t baffled by the conclusion, nor did I need Sen to neatly tie everything together and have Swan carefully explain everything the way cops in bad TV shows always seem to.
I was impressed by Sen’s confidence in his audience and their ability to follow the story without a lot of narrative hand-holding. You will have to pay attention to a lot of visual cues and seemingly-incidental conversations. But Swan is told by his Sergeant (Tony Barry) near the beginning of the film, after the body which sets off the film’s central mystery is found, that he’ll have to work the case alone. This means there are few opportunities for the sort of buddy-cop conversations which explain the evidence and theories about whodunnit to the audience. For one thing, it’s clear from the start that none of Swan’s fellow officers are really his buddies. Nor does he have a constant, snarky interior monologue running in the manner of Raymond Chandler characters. But Swan is methodical and observant viewers should have no trouble empathizing with him or following his process. Aaron Pedersen owns the movie, appearing in nearly every scene, and providing its steady moral center. Some viewers have found him laconic or hard to relate to, but I didn’t. This isn’t a stylized genre picture– in fact, I found frequent comparisons between this and the Coen brothers’ films (or David Lynch) a bit deceptive. Though I love those directors, their films aren’t as thoroughly grounded in the real world as Sen’s is. They often play the role of capricious creators who delight in putting their characters through outlandish miseries and setbacks before offering a reprieve (or not)… Sen, on the other hand, intends us to empathize with Jay Swan and view the events of the story through his eyes. I found it refreshing that Swan never needed to monologue or toss off smartass catchphrases, or swagger like characters in old-school Westerns (or Tarantino films.) Some viewers need that level of escapist entertainment in everything they watch. I don’t, and would have found it crass and distracting in a carefully constructed, quietly profound film like this.
The film is visually beautiful despite the poverty and dire circumstances most of its characters face. The story doesn’t tug at the heartstrings like Sen’s earlier film Beneath Clouds; its protagonist is older and more acquainted with the inequity his community faces, and his own limitations. It is fair to call the story a “slow burn”, but that’s in no way a negative. The film’s trailer, while magnetic, is a bit more heavy-handed than the film itself, full of propulsive, melodramatic music heard nowhere in the film, and implying Swan offers withering moral lectures at regular intervals. No. not really… though one never doubts the character’s integrity, anger and determination. The film also doesn’t soft-pedal the problems of the aboriginal community, including alcoholism and other addictions, which led to the breakup of Swan’s marriage. (Tasma Walton plays his brittle, antagonistic ex and problematic custodial parent of his daughter, who knew the murdered girl and might know more about her death than she’s telling.) Swan admits at one point he’s caught between two worlds; his fellow policemen don’t treat him as an equal, and his community think that by joining their ranks, he’s betrayed them. Swan is reluctant to accept assistance, in fact, because he knows that any city cops brought in to help will probably harass the native community further and make racial strife worse.
The acting is superlative all around, with the unfortunate exception of Samara Weaving, who’s flat and implausible in her brief scene as a young police officer’s widow. I’m deliberately not offering too many details about the most famous actors in the film, how they interact with Pedersen and how they’re involved in the main plot, because experiencing this is one of the film’s chief pleasures, and I don’t want to spoil it. I will repeat how refreshing I found it that Swan’s investigation is on-target throughout, meaning skeevy, suspicious characters he interviews are, in fact, involved in the case in some way and are not red herrings who behave suspiciously due to completely unrelated secrets. 😉 Ryan Kwanten’s fans will probably be somewhat disappointed that he has only three scenes, only speaks in one, and that this scene has been revealed in previews. But he does a solid job besmirching his dimwitted-but-well-meaning hunk image. David field plays his equally repellent father. Bruce Spense is an unmitigated delight as the quirky coroner, who’s obsessed with a possible evolutionary trend in the local dog population. (More on those dogs later…) Tony Barry is both fatherly and patronizing as Swan’s detached boss. Damian Walshe-Howling plays a seedy local drug dealer (and police informant) with verve. Jack Thompson has one scene, but a memorable one, as a lonely outsider who might have seen something pertinent.
I’m saving Hugo Weaving for last because, apart from Pedersen, he makes the biggest impression. But saying too much about his character would be unfair, particularly to fans. (In fact, I’d chide Ivan Sen and Hugo himself for giving a bit too much away before the film’s release.) It’s evident from early scenes that his character Johnno (the character’s real name is Johnny Bush, but that’s only noted once on a police document) is suspected of involvement in the case by Swan almost from the outset. And Johnno’s behavior and smiling condescension (you could also read his constantly calling Jay “boy” as racist) in the face of this suspicion doesn’t improve his image. But the character has more complexity in just five or so scenes that all five of Hugo Weaving’s characters in Cloud Atlas had combined. And, unlike his most famous characters, Johnno doesn’t monologue about his deeds or intentions. In fact, pretty much everything he says, Jay has to learn to read between the lines. It’s a delicious performance offering many shades of gray, and some aspects of the character remain elusive even after the final scene.
But I do need to stress that while there are often long stretches of time between Hugo Weaving’s scenes, I wasn’t checking my watch the way I did during, say, The Matrix Reloaded. The cast and storytelling won’t allow that. Yes, you will have to pay attention. Meaning if you are constantly yapping with your friends or checking your Twitter feed DURING THE SCREENING (as some in the Hamptons audience– and, alas, a lot of film screenings I attend lately– were) you might miss something that won’t be hammered into your thick skull later.
The film has several obvious thematic strands (racism, poverty, rural isolation and the crimes these engender) but some less weighty ones as well. The film’s take on Australian male behavior was consistently amusing– the frequent conversations about guns are never just about guns. 😉 And it’s interesting that Swan uses his high-power rifle’s sight to observe others from a distance as often as he does to take aim and fire– though he’s no slouch in that department. Then there are the dogs, both wild and domesticated. Some critics have gotten hung up on the dogs, treating them as a humorous nonsequitur that doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the film. My take is different. Yes, the dogs can be seen as a metaphor for human malevolence, as Jack Thompson said in a recent interview, but they’re also a valid plot point. Though many characters mention packs of “wild dogs” menacing the area, the only wild dog seen is dead, poisoned by the locals. Meanwhile, many players in the investigation own large domestic dogs, and these are seen frequently throughout the film. So they’re both a visual metaphor and an actual lead. The only time I found them particularly humorous was in Bruce Spense’s commentary, and he’s a funny character. I didn’t see a lot of unintentional humor in the film, though many scenes have dry, darkly humorous elements that must be intended– particularly a sequence set at a dive motel called From Dusk to Dawn. Most of the critics who’ve commented on unintentional humor seem a bit crass and juvenile to me now that I’ve seen the film. The final shootout is in no way humorous… those who find it so would probably be better off renting Pacific Rim or the like.
If there are flaws in the film, they’re relatively minor, and most are probably rooted in the logistic complications of assembling a cast of this quality. For example, it’s clear during the final shootout that not all of the actors were in the same location at the same time. 😉 But it’s far more dramatic to imply they all are than to shoot a series of disjointed scenes is which Swan tracks down all of the players individually. And there might have been a few too many aerial tracking shots of Swan driving through the streets of town chasing down another lead, though the progression helps us understand Swan’s isolation and doggedness. (No canine pun intended– Swan’s character is one of the few without a dog.) 😉 And, as I mentioned before, Samara Weaving failed to convince me (here, at least) that she’s inherited her family’s acting gene. But in general, this is the sort of film that rewards repeat viewings because it trusts you to keep up and figure things out for yourselves.
I want to stress that I’m not insulting the other directors or genres mentioned here– I often enjoy pure-entertainment movies or unrealistic action films with villains who monologue. 😉 But I think some of the comparisons made between those films and Mystery Road don’t really fit. For example, this film bears little resemblance to LA Confidential or No Country For Old Men. I liked it a bit better than either of them, though they’re both virtuoso directorial efforts with decent casts. (I personally prefer the Coens’ original work to their adaptations, and admired No Country’s cinematography and sound design more than I cared about any of its characters.) If you go to this film seeking witty (but unnatural) banter, frequent car chases or other action tropes, you’ll be disappointed. On the other hand, Sen also eschews the hectoring social commentary of many independent films about Important Social Issues. The film never indulges Oscar-bait speechifying about racism or class inequity. it’s neither a paint-by-numbers genre film OR social drama, and by dodging the worst cliches of both, creates something viscerally fresh and involving.
Sorry to go on there… if I had a lot of extra time I’d edit that down a bit, possibly reorganize it. I’m still putting my thoughts about the film in order, so this is less refined than a formal review. But then. no one’s paying me to be a Formal Reviewer, and I’ve found some people who do get paid for their opinions have misrepresented the film. I’m reminded of David Stratton’s mixed review on At The Movies, which gripes about confusion, and all the plot strands not being neatly tied up at the film’s end. One of the initial comments on the review (by actor Roy Billing) noted “It’s all there if you watch carefully.” And he’s right. Yes, there are some scenes I already know I’ll want to watch again to see how Jay Swan got from point A to Point B, but that’s a good thing. It’s a rare and wonderful thing to be genuinely outwitted by a protagonist (and writer/director) rather than sideswiped with implausible rug-puling twists and repeated red herrings.
Mystery Road Coverage
Mystery Road opens wide in Australia today (it’s October 17 in Australia as I type this), so coverage has continued to appear frequently online… I’ll do my best to assemble everything since my previous post below.
Ivan Sen gave promotional interviews to SBS (video from Sydney Film Festival), to Movieland/ABC Sydney (audio interview with producer David Jowsey), Radio Adelaide and RTR FM. Aaron Pedersen spoke to Quickflix and Beat Magazine, Pedersen and Sen gave joint interviews to The Blurb, IBTimes News and The West Australian. Tasma Walton, whose central contribution to the film deserves more mention, spoke to Transcontinental.com.au. And Jack Thompson gave an informative, entertaining perspective to FredFilmRadio.
Queensland Country Life posted a story about the filming location, Winton, QLD, and interviewed some locals who had key roles in the film.
Well-written and/or positive reviews can be read at The Arts Desk, The Film Blerg, Urban Cinefile, The Toronto Star (also includes coverage of the film’s ImagiNATIVE Toronto screening), Cinema Axis, Concrete Playground, The Weekly Review, The Film Emporium, Quickflix, FilmInk, Dork Shelf, FILMDetail, Weekend Notes, EAM Ediciones (in Spanish), and Reel Good.
Here are the latest promo clips from Sydney Film Festival’s YouTube channel:
Tony Barry: The Story of Sarge
David Jowsey: Mystery Road, The Western
Ryan Kwanten: The Story of Pete Bailey
Yes, they’re keeping videos about Hugo’s character under wraps… for now. 😉 Though it could be argued any hints give away too much.
Ship of Theseus
Apart from Mystery Road, the big Hugo Weaving story of the day has been his role in helping a promising, well-reviewed Indian film, Ship of Theseus, find an audience in Australia. Several news outlets, including Times of India, Gossip Gravy and IndiaGlitz, have posted a press release with the news that the actor will serve as “presenter” of Anand Gandhi’s film in its Australian release. This usually means there will be an introductory credit saying “Hugo Weaving Presents…” at the beginning of the film– sort of an endorsement. I’ve seen this promotional tactic used in the US, mainly using the clout of well-known directors to promote work by less-famous filmmakers who’ve inspired or influenced them in some way. (David Lynch has served in this role a few times; Quentin Tarantino has made a secondary career out of it, often including his rapturous commentaries in the DVD releases of favorite indie and exploitation flicks.) Robert Redford would probably be the most famous actor who does this regularly. I have no idea if Hugo’s involvement will extend past the screen credit to a filmed introduction or press appearances; it’ll be interesting to find out. Fans may remember that Hugo and Anand Gandhi both served as jurors at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, and (probably) cast dissenting votes during controversial its final awards decision. Ship of Theseus premiered at SFF and has since made many other festival appearances. Like a certain film Hugo Weaving fans might have heard of, it has a blind photographer as a protagonist, but it probably doesn’t have a lot else in common with Proof, aside from positive reviews. I was already planning on seeing it, so I don’t need Hugo’s persuasion, but it’s charming of him to do this. He would probably be amused that coverage keeps referring to him as a “Hollywood star”, though he’s never worked in Hollywood and avoids celebrity trappings whenever possible…
Hugo Weaving and Anand Gandhi at the 2013 Sydney Film Festival this past June
In Other Hugo Weaving News
There’s another positive review of Tim Winton’s The Turning at The Reel World.
US fans can finally add Mystery Road to their Netflix Saved queues: even if you plan on buying the eventual DVD/Blu-Ray, doing this helps provide an indication of demand for a film, and can help its distribution.
And STC’s Waiting For Godot, starring Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh, has added additional performances for its 12 November – 21 December Sydney run. Tickets are still available. And you can now buy blocks of tickets for the upcoming 2014 season, which will include Hugo as Macbeth.