When two young men go missing in the small town of Patterson in remote Western Australia, local cop Emma James (Judy Davis), calls in seasoned detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) to help find out what happened to them.
So begins Mystery Road, a six-part spin-off of Ivan Sen’s 2013 film of the same name. Directed by Rachel Perkins (known for 1998’s Radiance but most recently 2017’s Jasper Jones), the series picks up a narrative thread between the 2013 film and its 2016 “spiritual sequel”, Goldstone. But while there are references to the films that bookend it, this Mystery Road series is a self-contained narrative, with characters – particularly Jay Swan – the constant thread.
Small-town politics infuse this story: the two missing men, Marley and Eric, were working on a pastoral property owned and run by Emma’s brother, Tony Ballantine (Colin Friels). As Emma and Jay peel back the layers of the seemingly idyllic town, they also start to expose long-hidden secrets, and challenge complex power dynamics within the local Aboriginal community. Family, too, complicates the case for both investigators, as Emma confronts her family’s legacy as landowners and Jay’s daughter Crystal (Madeleine Madden) arrives to highlight the fractures in his.
Swan is an outsider. As an Aboriginal man who is also a detective, he is held suspiciously by his community and by his profession. He falls between the cracks of two worlds, a complication that inevitably spills over into his family life. Pedersen deeply inhabits his character: Jay’s relationship with Emma is rocky and the two characters spend a long time getting each other’s measure. The interactions between these two veterans of Australian screens are some of the most engaging scenes in the show.
Mystery Road boasts a stellar supporting cast that includes Wayne Blair as a community outcast, Ernie Dingo as the local powerbroker, plus Deborah Mailman, Ningali Lawford-Wolf, Meyne Wyatt and John Waters in equally impressive form. Tasia Zalar also gives a strong performance as Shevorne, the missing Eric’s girlfriend. Tasma Walton continues in the role of Jay’s ex-wife.
Mark Wareham’s cinematography assists in capturing a landscape that goes beyond merely an eye-catching backdrop. Filmed in the East Kimberley, the visual imagery gives the series a cinematic feel but it also gives the land such a strong presence that it feels like an antagonist in the story.
But it is with regard to directorial style that the biggest differences between the series and the films appears. It is hard to watch and not give thought to Ivan Sen, who had so finely and lovingly crafted the films, and one is left to marvel at the generosity of a creative spirit that can be so central to a project in one iteration and give over so completely to others in its next.
Sen and Perkins stand as two of the most experienced Aboriginal directors working today, and the contrast in styles is interesting when juxtaposed in this way. The grittiness of Sen’s films draws out a sense of menace from the violence that lies just underneath the surface of small towns, and in his world the past feels like it can never reconcile with the future. The world Perkins creates is more polished – history holds secrets, but they are hurts that can be healed. It is a more optimistic view of the world and one that is perhaps a better fit for a television audience.
This is an ambitious story that bounds along and ties together neatly. If at times the plot feels weaker in some places than others, it is more than covered over by the performances of the cast, particularly Pedersen and Davis. The only discordant note is that of Mary, Jay’s ex-wife, who feels very two dimensional – Tasma Walton’s talent appears under-utilised in the role. But these are minor irritations.
Between the landscape as a protagonist and the explorations of community relations in small towns, Mystery Road reminds us of the distinct voice Indigenous creatives can bring to visual storytelling. The result is a deftly made drama that will satisfy the contract with the audience regarding its genre, but also leaves open broader questions about how history haunts all Australians, whatever their colour.
• Mystery Road is showing on ABC TV on Sundays at 8.30pm with new episodes weekly