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Film / Mystery Road

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Mystery Road is a 2013 Australian crime film written and directed by Ivan Sen. It stars Aaron Pedersen, Hugo Weaving and Ryan Kwanten, and features a veritable who's who of Australian character actors.

In an outback town, Jay Swan, an Indigenous detective, returns home to solve the murder of a teenage Indigenous girl whose body is found under the highway trucking route out of town. Jay is alienated from both the white-dominated police force and the Indigenous community, including his teenage daughter, whom he discovers is connected to the murdered girl.

Mystery Road was followed by the sequel Goldstone in 2016, and a TV mini-series in 2018 (which according to Word of God is set between the two films), with a second season in 2020, and a prequel series in 2022.

Mystery Road contains examples of:

  • Absurdly Youthful Mother: Peggy Rogers, whose actress was 21 at the time of filming, and who was married with a child a year prior to the events of the movie.
  • Action Film, Quiet Drama Scene: The last lines in the movie are Jay making the phone call to Johnno. The drop, the shootout and its aftermath have no audible dialogue.
  • Advertised Extra: Jack Thompson is billed third in the credits and gets his name on the poster despite appearing in only one scene in the movie.
  • The Alcoholic: Sarge is seen drinking in his office in one scene and inviting Jay to have a beer with him. Crystal tells Jay that her mother drinks “All the time.” It's implied that Jay's father, and Jay himself in his early days, also had a drinking problem.
  • Big Damn Heroes: When he finds the stolen drugs, Jay calls Johnno to hand them over. At the rendezvous however the criminal gang turns up instead, and once they've verified the contents they try to kill Jay, who is pinned down by several shooters including Pete with his hunting rifle. At that point however Johnno intervenes with his own rifle and evens those odds at the cost of his life. Whether this meant he was Good All Along, or a Dirty Cop who just didn't want Jay to get killed like Bobby, is never revealed.
  • Big Fun: The shopkeeper (who is credited as Robbo but called Mick in the movie itself) is a bit paunchy and is pleasant in a casual way. He seems to get along well with Jay (who buys ammo from him) and is quick to cooperate when Jay asks about who has been buying knives like the one used in the murder.
  • Brutal Honesty: When Jay asks Sarge how his grandchildren are, Sarge replies “spoiled.” Wayne Silverman also admits casually to pimping out Julie in exchange for drugs, likely due to knowing his status as an informant will get him released soon.
  • Beware of Vicious Dog: The local wild dog problem has been getting out of control for some time.
  • Catholic School Girls Rule: Inverted. Jasmine (who is shown wearing what appears to be a Catholic school uniform and makes a religious comment) is the only one of the teen girls in the film who isn’t sexualized or involved in drugs and prostitution.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • The literal version when Jay's rifle ends up being used in the climatic battle, against the man who had been bragging about his own skill with a rifle.
    • The farmer Jay interviews complains about stuff being stolen from cars. Turns out this is the motive for the killing.
  • Clueless Deputy: Robbo does a poor job of securing the crime scene, not taping off the footprints and displaying some general ignorance when asked about some details. Later on, he hovers around and lets Johnno do all the talking during drug arrests. Of course considering that he’s the Dirty Cop, that cluelessness was probably deliberate obstruction.
  • Concealment Equals Cover: During the shootout on Mystery Road, several bullets strike Jay's car door without seeming to pass through.
  • Cool Uncle: Jay gets offered useful insight and information by a genial old local man who calls him “nephew” in two scenes.
  • The Coroner: Jim may look and act like a quirky Frontier Doctor, but he is sharp as a tack and nothing escapes his forensic examination.
  • Cold Sniper: The climax actually features three of these, Pete, Jay (although he does more shooting with his pistol), and Johnno. Interestingly Pete, the only villainous one of the three, shows the most nerves and emotion of the three.
  • Cowboy Cop: Indigenous detective Jay Swan is on the outer with most of his white colleagues and is told multiple times not to work too hard on his investigation. He doesn't listen.
  • Creepy Good: Johnno has a checkered, Mysterious Past, a generally abrasive and suspicious demeanor, and various dealings with some of the people Jay is investigating (although he claims it's in furtherance of his investigation into the drug trade). Near the end though, he gives Jay some useful information and helps him in the final shootout.
  • Da Chief: Sarge, who gives limited support or concern towards Jay and his investigation and just comments about the prioritization of recourses.
  • Dirty Cop: Robbo turns out to be in league with the local drug dealers.
  • Disappeared Dad:
    • Jay left his wife and daughter and the case leads to some of his first contact with them in ten years.
    • Bobby Rogers is mentioned as having left behind a child.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Sarge is only ever addressed as 'Sarge' or 'Sergeant': never by his name.
  • Foil: Jay and Bobby Rogers, to some extent. Jay is a middle-aged Aboriginal cop and Disappeared Dad who is somewhat distant from his fellow officers who first becomes involved due to the murders and manages to close the case. Bobby was a young, presumably white Family Man who seemed to trust the other cops and (based on Sarge's toast to him) have their full respect, apparently started working the case from the drug angle, and while a capable officer, ultimately became another victim of the criminals.
  • Freudian Excuse:
    • During a cast interview, Ryan Kwanten describes playing his character Pete as someone who is the way he is due to his greedy, bigoted father.
    • Several of the girls shown or implied to be involved in drugs and prostitution have troubled lives. Julie's mother appears to be hungover and not too affected to hear about her death, and her sister is sleeping on the floor (implying a state of poverty). Jay's uncle tells him that Nelli Dargon's family was pretty rowdy and that her father once threatened to drop her baby brother in a cooking pot and boil him during a fight. Crystal's father left the family, and her mother is a drunk.
  • Hero of Another Story:
    • His last scenes imply that Johnno might actually be one, investigating the case from another angle and being implied to have pieces of the puzzle that Jay never finds out for sure.
    • Bobby Rogers was also making progress into the case, before Jay ever showed up, until he turned up dead. The fact that the drug ring considered him a big enough threat to assassinate, while they never try to do the same to Jay and Johnno until the climax, despite how much sniffing around their doing, implies that Bobby was a serious threat to them indeed. The motel clerk even noted that he was there a year ago asking some of the same questions as Jay.
  • I Don't Like the Sound of That Place: The film opens with a girl's corpse being found at the ominously named Massacre Creek, and the final shoot-out happens at Slaughter Hill.
  • Idiot Ball: The normally-competent Big Bad really could have picked a better place to dump Julie’s body than across the road from his own house, which brings the police around and causes Jay to pick up some suspicious details.
  • The Informant:
    • Jay gets a lot of information about Julie his uncle, and gives him some money to play Bingo with afterwards.
    • Later, Jay gives a boy who found Julie’s phone some money and permission to hold his (unloaded) gun while asking a few questions.
    • Johnno claims that local drug dealer Wayne is his informant after Jay arrested him and later events (Wayne seen being dragged into a car roughly by several other gang members) imply this is true.
  • Jabba Table Manners: While having a 'feed' with Jay, Johnno gobbles down his Chinese food, slurps his tea, and hacks something up into a napkin.
  • Joggers Find Death: The film starts when a truck driver stops to check his tyres and discovers a girl's body in a culvert.
  • Married to the Job: Johnno notes that the demands of the job kept him from ever having a family. Jay's luck was little better; he did have a family once, but his relationship with his wife also ended badly and he barely knows his daughter. Bobby Rogers was a subversion, having a wife who noted he made time for her and didn't talk about his work at home.
  • Missing White Woman Syndrome: Jay is worried that the murder investigation is not getting the resources it needs because the victim was an Aboriginal girl from the wrong side of the tracks. When a second Aboriginal girl turns up dead, Sarge says that they're handing the investigation over to a homicide team from the big smoke. This infuriates Jay, who knows they won't accomplish anything as they do not know the area or the locals. It is at this point that Jay goes full Cowboy Cop.
  • Half-Breed Discrimination: Crystal is the daughter of Jay, an Aboriginal, and Mary, a white woman, and it's implied that she's largely shunned by the white community.
  • Malevolent Masked Men: The criminal who picks up the drugs from Jay is wearing a Lord Humungus-like hockey mask to hide the fact that he's a fellow police officer.
  • Mr. Smith: Pete rents a hotel room under the name William Smith.
  • New Old West: Set in Australia rather the US, but the films deals with a Cowboy Cop trying to fight crime and keep the peace in the vast expanse of the Outback, with very little in the way of resources or backup.
  • No-Tell Motel: While the local hotel itself (and its proprietor) seem respectable enough it’s mentioned that Pete sometimes rents a room there and brings girls and drugs.
  • Nosy Neighbour: Mary's neighbour is a nosy old man who knows everything that goes on in the street. When Mary's house gets broken into, he refuses to tell Jay anything for fear of reprisals. However, he does nod almost imperceptibly when Jay asks him if the perpetrators were driving a gold Statesman. This is enough for Jay to go on.
  • Old-Fashioned Copper: Sarge just wants a peaceful life in his bailiwick, and is willing to sweep things under the rug if it will prevent a race war breaking out in his town.
  • One-Steve Limit: There's a Constable "Robbo" Roberts, and a townsman named Robbo who sells guns, as well as Posthumous Character Constable Bobby Rogers.
  • Phoneaholic Teenager: Julie has a lot of texts on her phone and Jasmine (the neighbor of another missing girl) spends most of the conversation with Jay looking at her phone instead of him.
  • The Place: Mystery Road is the name of the remote road where the film's climax takes place.
  • Pop the Tires: When Pete attempts to flee the shootout, Jay uses his rifle to shoot out Pete's tyres.
  • Ransacked Room: Jay arrives at Mary's house to find the door kicked in and the house ransacked, with no indication of what the searchers where looking time. Later, he visits Julie's now empty house to find the same situation. However, this time Jay knows what they were after and is able to locate its hiding spot.
  • Recovered Addict: Mary states that ten years ago, Jay drank as much as she did. Nowadays, he ends up buying liquor bottles but using them for target practice.
  • Red Herring: All the talk of wild dogs appears to be leading to something—the coroner even mentions finding DNA traces of a 'super dog' breed—but is more for Rule of Symbolism and to give a vaguely menacing air.
  • Retirony: Averted. At the beginning of the film Sarge mentions that Frank, another officer, will have a retirement party later that day, but a few scenes later, Frank does indeed retire and the party merely serves to feature a Chekhov's Lecture from Sarge during his farewell speech.
  • Riddle for the Ages:
    • The set-up for the climax has a certain amount of ambiguity. Once Jay finds the drugs in Julie's house, he calls Johnno, and arranges to meet him off of Mystery Road. Once he arrives there, instead of Johnno, he finds Pete and the rest of the gang, with Johnno appearing on a cliff and firing at them with his rifle. It's never revealed how Pete and the others knew to arrive there. Did Jay call Robbo as well as Johnno? Did Johnno tell Robbo to trick him into incriminating himself either on his own or at Jay's suggestion? Did Johnno tell Robbo innocently and simply happen to arrive late, with a sniper rifle to help out? Was Johnno Evil All Along and simply been taking an opportunity to dispose of his partners? Could Johnno have told Robbo while thinking him trustworthy and then figured it out just in time to provide Jay cover at the end? Which, if any, of these is true is never revealed, as the last lines in the movie are Jay making the phone call and the drop, the shootout and its aftermath have no audible dialogue.
    • Where did Crystal disappear to during the final act before returning safely in the final scene? Was she in hiding? Obliviously doing normal teenaged stuff without knowing people were panicking over her? Or could she really have been kidnapped and then was let go after Jay found the drugs and called to set up the Mexican Standoff in the climax?
  • Robbing the Mob Bank: The motive for the murders turn out to be drugs that had been hidden in a car that was stolen and stripped for spare parts.
  • Slashed Throat: All of the girls are murdered by having their throats slashed with a hunting knife.
  • The Snack Is More Interesting: Sarge is eating a popsicle while Jay first updates him about the dead girl.
  • Sniper Duel:
    • The film ends with a sniper duel between Jay and Pete, with each using their preferred rifle. Jay is at the top of a hill, taking cover behind a fallen tree, while Pete is at the bottom, taking cover behind his crippled truck. They take turns firing at each other, with each adjusting his sights as he sees where his shot hits, and with the first one to correctly zero in destined to be the winner.
    • Mere minutes earlier Pete and Johnno also have one, with Pete using the door of his truck as a rest, and Johnno just sitting there, cross-legged.
  • Strange Minds Think Alike: Both Jay and Jim, upon being told that a wild dog chewed on Julie’s body, ask how they know that the dog was wild. This does more to emphasize their mutual alertness and perception than any quirkiness though.
  • Stranger in a Familiar Land: Jay grew up in the town but as an Aboriginal policeman he finds himself ostracised by many from both sides of the racial divide, and from his own daughter whom he abandoned years before.
  • Stupid Evil: The Big Bad really could have picked a better place to dump Julie’s body than Across the road from his own house, which brings the police around and causes Jay to pick up some suspicious details.
  • Tough Love: Jasmine denies doing drugs, claiming that her grandmother (who seems loving but concerned) would “kill me and send me to hell” if she did.
  • Un-Confession: At one stage Johnno appears to be making an Implied Death Threat when he asks Jay if he thinks he could get away with accidentally killing someone. However another possibility is that he was the 'friend' who called Bobby Rogers on the night of his death, and he feels guilt over having caused his murder, either directly or indirectly.
  • Verbal Tic: Johnno often repeats a part of a sentence (eg. “Right there, right there”).
  • Wham Line: The first half hour of the movie makes little reference to Jay's life outside of the police force. When he learns that a girl named Crystal was friends with the murder victim, it doesn't seem unnatural for him to visit her house and make awkward small talk with her mother, who he clearly knows. Then, once the reason behind his visit becomes clear, Crystal's mother utters this line.
    Mary: So, what? You're just here for work? Not here to see your daughter?
  • Working the Same Case: The drugs and the murders ultimately turn out to be connected.
  • Wretched Hive: Jay's hometown has an ongoing problem with drugs, alcoholism, racial tension and just a general sense of apathy.