Film, Online Streaming, Television

“It’s a Murder Thing” – the multi-layered Mystery Road franchise

At the 2019 Logie Awards, popular outback-crime series, Mystery Road (2018) starring Aaron Pederson as Detective Jay Swan, received eight Logies nominations, the most of any other production that year. The series was produced by Bunya Productions for the ABC. Directed by Rachel Perkins, with Ivan Sen as Executive Producer, it was Bunya Productions’ first television drama production and became the highest-ranking non-children’s show in ABC iview history.

After the awards, however, Series One director, Rachel Perkins, posted on Facebook:

“Does anybody else find this odd? Our show Mystery Road takes out most popular drama series at the Logies and was nominated for 9 awards [sic] – so the public voted for it to win which was great. We worked the red carpet, but not a single photo of our cast can be found – so I have decided to post my own shots of some of the brilliant blackfellas that were there on the night. So many! Thanks friends and family for voting for us, first Indigenous show to win most popular, so proud!”

The post from 4 July 2019 received 2500 comments; 7200 shares and 21,000 likes.

A more recent Google search of 2019 Logies winners revealed a picture of the cast of Mystery Road under the most popular drama award. A more general search returned images of prominent celebrities and red-carpet fashion, but it was harder to find pictures of the winners of specific award categories. It’s unclear whether these images were available online when Perkins made her post or were added later, perhaps in response to it, but it does add to the allure of the Mystery Road franchise and give cause to reflect on the visibility and invisibility of Indigenous Australians in our screen industry.

The franchise began in 2013, when Indigenous Australian filmmaker Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road, the film, debuted, spurning a sequel, Goldstone (2016), and spin-off series on ABC television (2018) directed by Perkins. A second season premiered in 2020, directed by Warwick Thornton and Wayne Blair. The films and series have achieved mainstream popularity and critical acclaim, with the mainstay of Australian cowboy, Detective Swan (Pederson). Sen’s clever use of genre and artistic cinematography engages audiences with familiar storylines and tropes, such as unsolved murders, a detective-outsider, and gun battles. At the same time the films and series interrogate complex themes such as race, cultural identity, trauma and shame, and the state of remote Australian communities – as places of tension with drug use, domestic violence, and corruption. 

Advertisements for the 2013 film feature Pedersen (who identifies as an Arrernte and Arabana Australian man) in Akubra, jeans and cowboy boots, rifle slung over his shoulder against a big sky and desert landscape. The caption “It’s a Murder Thing”, drew me in; along with the names of well-known Australian actors Hugo Weaving and Jack Thompson. It’s also an “Australian thing”.

Many high-profile, popular films were released in 2013: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Life of Pi, Django Unchained, Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. Mystery Road (2013) premiered at the Sydney Film Festival and grossed $280,702 at the box office, a trifling amount in comparison to the international block busters listed above; however, this is not indicative of the (in)significance of Sen’s film or what it would become as a fixture in Australian popular culture.

An indication of the success of the Mystery Road franchise, beyond the original film’s box office earnings, is the sequel and series that came after it. In Mystery Road (2013) Swan returns to his home-town to solve the murder of a teenage Aboriginal girl, whose body is found in a drain under the highway out of town. His investigations uncover an illegal drug lab. Goldstone (2016) follows the character of Swan as he investigates the disappearance of an Asian girl, uncovers a prostitution ring, and confronts the corrupting influence of the mining industry. Swan is battling his own demons in the film. Across the franchise, Swan struggles with his identity and to negotiate relationships with his ex-wife and daughter. Sen describes Goldstone as a “spin-off” that explores another dimension of the character of Swan. It deliberately uses the crime/western genre to appeal to a wider audience and contains more action than Mystery Road (2013).

The series adapt the themes and style of the films. In Series One, Swan investigates the disappearance of a local Aboriginal youth and a backpacker, and in Series Two there is a body in a swamp and another drug ring. Thornton (Director of Series Two) explains how he continued what Sen, and then Perkins, had started: “We weren’t changing everything, coming in and stamping our footprint, ‘cause that would wreck it for the audience”. While the 2018 and 2020 series had different writers, they continue Swan’s fight against crime and corruption in remote Australia and confront serious issues in the guise of entertainment.

At the 2019 Logies, Mystery Road (2018) won most popular drama program and was nominated for most outstanding drama series. Deborah Mailman won most popular actress; Pedersen was nominated for most popular actor and most outstanding actor; Judy Davis was nominated for most outstanding actress, and Wayne Blair was nominated for most outstanding support actor. Tasia Zalar was nominated for the Graham Kennedy Award for most popular new talent. Additionally, at the Australian Directors’ Guild Awards 2019, Perkins won best direction in a television drama for Mystery Road. The success of the films and series is a win for Indigenous representation, featuring multiple Indigenous Australians in on- and off-screen roles.

According to film scholar Greg Dolgopolov, “we are seeing a renaissance in Indigenous filmmaking, and this demands greater research attention and engagement”. Dolgopolov made this observation in 2014, in relation to films such as Bran Nue Dae, The Sapphires and the first Mystery Road film. Goldstone and the Mystery Road series are part of this renaissance.

The Mystery Road franchise has attracted attention from critics for the ways in which the productions use genre to engage a wide audience while exploring complex themes. The films have been described as gothic outback noir, thriller, murder mystery, western, police procedural and even Australian post-western. The series is promoted as a “Drama, Mystery, Western” on Screen Australia’s website. Sen describes the 2013 version as “a Murder Mystery film, but it is one with undercurrents which … enhance the generic experience”. In each production, Detective Swan’s investigations of the murders and disappearances of marginal characters uncover corruption, depredation and intrigue. While on the surface Mystery Road, Goldstone and the television series are entertaining murder-mysteries set in outback Australia, they provoke deeper consideration of ongoing struggles with cultural identity due to Australia’s troubled past.

Swan is himself a marginal character – an Indigenous detective who came from the region he is sent back to investigate. Pedersen is compelling in a role that was written with him in mind. His character dominates the films and series. Swan’s positioning in the framing of scenes helps us read what is taking place, even if he remains enigmatic – “a man of few words”, according to Senior Sergeant Emma James (Judy Davis) in Series One. In promotional material, Sen describes the character as “a loner, an archetypal cowboy … forever stuck in the middle”. Swan acts as a cultural mediator of sorts, as he negotiates a position (or identity) between cultures – being not fully accepted amongst the Indigenous or white communities.

Strong female performances include Mailman as the mother of the missing Aboriginal boy and Davis as a police sergeant who discovers that her relatives were responsible for killing Aborigines on their cattle station. In a closing scene, she watches Indigenous children playing basketball on the local war memorial: “I know what went on. We all know”. She deliberately pursues her family’s history and faces the past determined to do what she can to repair it. While Swan solves the crimes, hope for a better future lies with female characters.

The material and themes in the films and series are based partly on Sen’s personal experience, as he explains to Emily Blatchford: “sometimes when you’re writing a script you think that you’re enlarging reality a little too much, but no, there’s probably a lot more sh-t going on out there than what I show”. While the familiarity of the crime/western genre provides a buffer to the stark reality of life in remote communities—murder-mysteries are solved—perhaps because of this basis in lived experience, reductionist binaries are avoided, highlighting the legacy of shame and trauma in both black and white lives. The writers of the television series continue in this vein, portraying difficult lives in a beautiful but uncompromising environment.

The visual artistry of the films and series convey complex themes through images and framing rather than dialogue, which is not always the case in Australian productions. Sen deliberately sought to imbue every aspect of the films and series with “intricate beauty”: “I was just like, let’s turn this action into the most artistic drama action you’ve ever seen in any film … keep the art but make it for the masses … The more artistic you can make it, the more profound it becomes”. The combination of carefully stylised cinematography with the murder-mystery plotlines provides a rich viewing experience.

As a viewer, I enjoyed the action and intrigue of Mystery Road, Goldstone and the television series while marvelling at the cinematography; however, what I found most refreshing was the treatment of black and white characters. I felt that neither was privileged yet our violent history and its ongoing ramifications were in no way ignored or glossed over. I can’t be the only person to have felt this way, as the popularity of the franchise with viewers suggests, along with the critical attention the productions have generated. Dolgopolov argues, “it is no longer conceivable to separate Indigenous representation, narratives and production practices from Australian cinema as a whole” and I hope this is indeed the case. Sen, Perkins, and now Thornton and Blair, have broken new ground in Australian cinema and are telling powerful stories in interesting ways. I look forward to more of their work and seeing them on the red carpet again soon.

Robyn Greaves gained her PhD in English Literature from the University of Tasmania. Her research interests are Australian literature, identity, place, life writing and memoir. She lives in Tasmania.