Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Mystery Road and Goldstone

Does a Western have to be filmed in the western part of the United States to be considered a Western?  The Australian movies Mystery Road and Goldstone emphatically prove the answer is no.


Both movies star Aaron Pedersen, an Indigenous Australian actor who has appeared in a number of popular Australian TV shows.  In the 2013 film Mystery Road, Pedersen plays Jay Swan, a detective who arrives in a small town in the outback to solve the mystery of who murdered an Aboriginal girl.  In Goldstone, released in 2016, some years have passed but again Jay Swan finds himself in another speck-of-a-nowhere town in the outback searching for a missing Chinese girl.  The pacing is very slow at the start, especially in Goldstone, but both films climax with a burst of action followed by a denouement which resolves some questions but leaves others unanswered, as all good movies should so viewers can form their own conclusions. 

In both Mystery Road, which runs 221 minutes, and Goldstone, which is 210 minutes long, several Western clich├ęs are present.  However, because of the superb acting, the wonderful and sometimes unusual cinematography, and the unfamiliar setting – to Americans, at least – they do not feel like tired tropes.  

Jay Swan is the outsider who appears suddenly from nowhere – the audience never learns where he is from.  His home life is messy – he’s left his wife, who is very angry at him, and he’s estranged from his daughter.  He works alone – and almost seems to go out of his way to discourage colleagues from getting too friendly with him.  He swaggers when he walks – and does it beautifully, but in doing so he conveys an attitude of righteousness.  He wears iconic cowboy clothing – an Australian version of a cowboy hat, a gun in a holster on his hip, and cowboy boots, which the camera lovingly focuses on many times, especially in Mystery Road but also in Goldstone.  Jay Swan is the loner who stands up to corruption and speaks truth to power – and gets hurt, physically and psychologically, as a result.  

As well, supporting characters embody classic Western traits: the mayor and others on the take, the fresh-faced younger guy who has trouble distinguishing right from wrong, the older woman with almost a heart of gold who is loyal to the wrong person.  The towns that are the settings of both films are dusty with few inhabitants, located in what seem to be the middle of nowhere; they are self-enclosed environments where the law is not really present.  In both Mystery Road and Goldstone, there are shoot-outs; I won’t spoil anything but both of them conform to Western showdowns.  

The victims in Mystery Road and Goldstone are “little people” who have no power.  Through many twists and unexpected turns, Jay Swan saves them.  The bad guys get their well-deserved comeuppance.  The world is made not perfect but better because of Jay Swan.

After Goldstone was released, a TV show was produced with Aaron Pedersen playing Jay Swan; currently, there are two seasons available.  The TV series are set in between the time of the movies and fill in a little of the backstory of Jay Swan.  Each series deals with one overall mystery.  They, and the movies too, also address contemporary issues such as relationships between Indigenous people and whites, the power of the government, land control and use, and family dynamics. Although situated in an Australian context, they will resonate with audiences world-wide.

For a different take on the Western genre, Mystery Road, Goldstone, and the TV series are well worth watching.