Review by © Jane Freebury
In the space of the three years since we saw Mystery Road, detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) has buckled a bit under the pressures and contradictions of his job. The hair is lank, the shoulders slumped and the look vacant. Being an Indigenous police officer appears to have taken its toll, and more in gesture than in words, Pedersen makes us feel it.
As a stranger on official business, Swan drives into Goldstone drunk as a skunk and is deposited in the clink until blood alcohol levels recede. The town’s only policeman, young Josh (Alex Russell), is pretty new to town himself.
Swan is on assignment to locate a missing person. Had it been an investigation into a missing Aboriginal person, then this would have probably been an altogether different film. Indeed, it would have been Mystery Road 2, but here the filmmaker Ivan Sen has extended his themes of cross-cultural relations ambitiously. After the opening montage of black-and-white photographs from the gold rush era that depict the exploitation of Asians and Aboriginal people in the early days, he brings the issue to front and centre. Young Asian women are being deprived of their passports, held hostage to pay for their fare to Australia and forced to work in prostitution. Like the stunning drama, The Jammed, that hit the big screen a while ago, human trafficking is at the core.
It’s no stretch locating the root cause of evil in Goldstone. It’s the town’s power couple, mine boss Johnny and Maureen the Mayor, industry veterans David Wenham and Jacki Weaver, respectively. Maureen’s penchant for baking wholesome apple cakes and serving them up to those she intends to compromise makes sly mockery of homespun hospitality, while Johnny’s penchant for neat beige shorts and long socks belie the darkness within. More nuance written into these characters, like the treatment of Tom E. Lewis’s character, the corrupt head of the Land Council, would have served the film better.
Like Mystery Road and Toomelah before it, and his first feature Beneath Clouds before that, the new film from writer/director Ivan Sen is magnificently photographed and really impresses with its sense of place, a place that means freedom to some, entrapment to others, like the women at The Ranch. Goldstone occupies land that the Indigenous community call home, but there are others who are just passing through, like the fly-in-fly-out miners who sleep in temporary accommodation and Pinky the self-employed prostitute who sees clients in her mobile home. Inhabitants of demountables and caravans who are all set to move on the moment that vast hole in the ground, the Furnace Creek open cut mine, stops production.
In what is one of the most interesting and unexpected aspects of this strong, stylish and confident film, Jay and Josh slowly form a partnership as they find themselves covering each other’s back. Not one but two solitary western heroes putting things to right. Two lonely cops pitted against a technologically superior elite, doing corrupt business deals over the heads of ordinary people. A story for our time?
Sen sent his camera into the air, sometimes aboard a drone, as though segueing from wide shot to aerial shot was the most natural thing in the world. The very talented Sen was the film’s editor and composer too. No wonder the stringed instruments and the editing rhythms contribute to the organic whole.
Had Sen been unable to balance the intended social critique with what audiences expect of the generic conventions he has deployed, Goldstone might not have come together so well. However, like Mystery Road before it, the film is a superior fusion of outback noir thriller and contemporary western—and another story to lay down on an ancient land.
Goldstone could become a classic of the Australian screen.