They haven’t had much exposure in the U.S., but Australia’s celebrated Mystery Road neo-western crime movies and television series have formed a franchise of enormous power, thanks to their desolate “Outback noir” settings, stunning cinematography, amazing cast, and above all, gripping storylines marked by unbearable tension largely caused by cultural clash.
The creation of Indigenous filmmaker Ivan Sen, the series began with the 2013 release of Mystery Road, which established the template of the Indigenous loner police detective Jay Swan. Magnificently played throughout the series by Indigenous actor Aaron Pedersen, the intensely somber Swan is charged with investigating the drug-related murder of an Indigenous teen girl whose body was dumped inside a roadside drainage culvert.
Goldstone followed in 2016 and found Swan in a small mining tone, searching for a missing Asian tourist. The format was then expanded in 2018 with the first of two six-episode TV seasons: Centering on the disappearance of an Indigenous football hero and a white backpacker, it paired Pedersen with a local police sergeant played by the great Judy Davis, and was made available in the U.S. via the Acorn TV subscription video streaming service.
Acorn is now bringing to the U.S. the second Mystery Road season, which aired in Australia earlier this year, starting Monday (Oct. 12). The new season finds Swan in the coastal town of Gideon, taking on another grisly case after a headless body is discovered in a mangrove swamp. As in the preceding plots, the stark differences between the white and Indigenous Australian communities and cultures are brought to the fore, with Swan stuck in a middle where neither side trusts him.
All of the Mystery Road incarnations have been heavily decorated with awards and nominations. According to Greer Simpkin, producer and head of television for Sen’s Bunya Productions company (she produced both Mystery Road TV seasons as well as Goldstone), the latest Australian ratings for the second Mystery Road series, which aired there in April and May on ABC, shows that it remains the year’s top show for the network—or any other Down Under.
“Audiences love it in Australia,” says Simpkin, on the phone in New Zealand and crediting Sen’s “original premise of using the western movie genre in bringing audiences in–where they end up staying because Sen also has so much to say.”
But it’s also because of how Sen says it–via the words of a character that evokes the western film archetype embodied by the likes of Clint Eastwood, or Gary Cooper’s stoic Marshal Will Kane in High Noon, but who, because of his locale and cultural roots, is entirely original.
“Ivan created this incredible character in Jay Swan—whom so much hinges on,” continues Simpkin, also citing Pedersen’s portrayal. “He’s compelling, brooding, complicated—and doesn’t say much.”
She further credits the participation of Indigenous script writers in both TV seasons, and the remote Outback location—a character unto itself.
“It’s an enormous span of desert that takes a couple days to travel,” says Simpkin. “So there’s that, and this brilliant mixture of Black and white writers in a room, then bringing in Indigenous directors for the first series [Rachel Perkins] and second [Warwick Thornton and Wayne Blair]—and that’s the key to its success: It’s very genuinely derived from that authenticity.”
Another noteworthy aspect of the series is its soundtrack, which features music by Australian musicians, many of them Indigenous and from its northwestern Kimberly location.
“We go very remote,” Simpkin says. “Very few TV series go as remote as we do: We’re up there five, six months. It’s coastal, with majestic mountains in the first series, and now coastal terrain and blue-green sea that’s spectacular. And we always involve the Indigenous community where we fit the series, using it for lots of extras.”
Regarding that community, Simpkin lauds the support from the federal government agency Screen Australia, which has an Indigenous department and facilitates a broad talent pool of Indigenous creators, actors and crew. And she stresses that the second TV series, like the first, can be enjoyed whether or not previous entries in the franchise have been seen—though viewers of the complete Mystery Road saga will appreciate elements running through the installments.
One of them, Simpkin notes, concerns firearms. The Mystery Road movie has an unbearably suspenseful shootout using rifles at long distance, which is echoed in the second film and final episode of both TV seasons.
Most fascinating, though, and intentionally educational, is that the Mystery Road series deals with past and present Indigenous injustices.
“For instance, Warwick wanted to see [lawn] sprinklers all the way through the second series,” explains Simpkin. “They’re nonsensical, and represent colonialism—sprinklers everywhere, like in England. And you see that motif through the desert, front and foremost in the shootout.”
She notes, too, that the “bucolic European world [created] in a beautiful desert” also juxtaposes ironically with the scenes of excavation of an Indigenous site by a Swedish female archaeologist.
“The second series touches upon scientists and anthropologists—people studying Indigenous artifacts, but taking them back to Europe and British museums. It also touches on the cultural repatriation movement, which is certainly happening in Australia and in Kimberly. The archaeologist character comes at everything from a scientific point-of-view, and only in the end does she touch the earth and understand the meaning of country, and that the connection to the land is really important.”
So is “the local natives’ objection to her quest to uncover Indigenous cultural artifacts to rewrite their history,” says Simpkin, noting that the character suffers a crisis of conscience when she finds an unidentified modern grave at the archaeological survey site.
“It jeopardizes her work, yet it could also solve a murder,” Simpkin adds, but the archaeological excavation subplot also significantly represents a facet of Australia’s historic exploitation of its Indigenous population that has yet to be fully reconciled.
Simpkin points to the first Mystery Road TV season, during which the Judy Davis character discovers that her own ancestors poisoned a water hole used by local natives.
“These things happened all over the country, and people here have denied they ever happened,” she says. “People who live on the coastline—in Sydney or Melbourne—aren’t even aware of the desert! But all [of the Mystery Road releases] deal with the effects of colonization.”
She relates, in fact, that Ivan Sen conceived the series because his cousin was murdered: “He felt the police never tried to find the murderer–and we carried that into the second series.”
But Simpkin cautions against assuming that all of Australia can be understood by Mystery Road—or that every dusty Outback town is like the ones attended to by Jay Swan.
“We made up the towns and created a world that does represent Australia to a degree,” she says. “It’s the frontier—an interesting place where one can disappear. But it’s an enormous continent and really quite incredible: For at least 70,000 years Aboriginal people have lived in tune with that land. We’re certainly not saying all places are interesting like that, but the relationship that the Indigenous Australians have with the land is ingrained.”
Meanwhile, Simpkin reports that Sen has already written the outline for a third Mystery Road TV season. And incidentally, his Bunya production company name comes from an Australian pine tree, which every two years brings together thousands of Indigenous people to celebrate the fallen bunya cones.