The title of Ivan Sen’s latest film Mystery Road appears on an arrow-shaped sign, pointing down one of the many highways traversed by his characters. Ochre light stains the dimming horizon, as if the land’s spilled blood has been blotted by the sky. Signs of what the country remembers, perhaps, or an augur of the violence still to come. A trucker pulls over to check his rig by Massacre Creek, soon drawn away from the road by something scratching and snarling in the culvert beneath. Whatever beast caught his attention remains unseen, but it has lured him to a more sinister discovery. An Aboriginal girl’s body slumps in the shadows. Rivulets of dried blood cake her neck, strings of rubies dripping from a crimson choker.
Hollywood lay claim to the highway long ago as a symbol of freedom. When the road movie emerged as a genre during the American New Wave, the turnpike was invested with countercultural capital in films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Easy Rider (1969). Taking to the open road signified a rejection of conservative social norms, choosing the unknown over the fixity of the suburbs. Drivers set out in search of escape, thrills and hopefully revelation. Ivan Sen is fascinated by this symbol, yet the highway never offers his characters deliverance – no matter how much they long for it. Instead, it stretches across a landscape haunted by history. Dividing nature and culture, the road is a scar left by colonisers set on conquering an unruly land. But where does it lead for a people displaced?
Sen’s debut feature Beneath Clouds (2002) was nominally a road movie, in which two teenage runaways try to hitchhike to Sydney in search of their families: Murri boy Vaughn (Pitt) his dying mother, and light-skinned Lena (Dannielle Hall) the Irish father she never knew. Neither will reach their destination—though we suspect this all along—discovering a racially fractured country instead. The roads in Toomelah (2011) snake around in circles, snaring boys like 10-year-old Daniel (Daniel Connors) in the troubled mission community. Mystery Road’s protagonist Jay Swann (Aaron Pederson), an Aboriginal cop sent in to investigate the girl’s murder, spends much of the film driving across these arterials as he tries to solve the town’s mystery. Ariel shots map unwavering lines that seem to reach nowhere.
Caught between two worlds, Swann finds himself an outsider in each. White policemen are largely indifferent to his case, while many of the town’s Aboriginal residents slam the door in his face. “Are you a real copper, or one of them black trackers?” spits the farmer Bailey (played by a menacing David Field). Bailey intends it as a slur to undermine the detective’s authority—these guides were exploited by the colonisers, often utilising their knowledge of the land to hunt down bushrangers—but these divided figures share Swann’s predicament. Many members of the local Aboriginal community view him as a turncoat. “We hate coppers, bro,” says a wide-eyed boy. “We kill coppers, bro.” Recently returned from the “big smoke”, Jay is twice othered, twice an outsider. “Things have changed since you’ve been away,” the sergeant (Tony Barry) tells him.
Mystery Road is Sen’s first foray into genre cinema, combining the narrative structure of the police procedural with the iconography of the Western. Dressed in press-stud shirt and white Akubra, the taciturn Swann is as much cowboy as cop. The camera lingers on the red dirt, punctuated by tussocks and rocky outcrops. Outback Queensland’s vistas could easily pass as the Nevada. But this isn’t a simple world of white hats and black hats, good guys and bad guys. Strange narrative tangents are never resolved – the scratching of the opening scene is revealed to be a “wild super dog”, a plague of which are terrorising the surrounding farmland, but it’s just a red herring to throw us off the scent. Sen’s use of the Western’s conventions is somewhat ironic: where Hollywood devised a whole genre to validate the frontier’s barbarous settlement, Aboriginal characters were, until very recently, largely erased from the histories charted in our cinema.
Aboriginal representation in Australian film has often reflected politics of the time. This began with Jedda (1955), Charles Chauvel’s technicolour melodrama about a half-caste girl raised by white landowners, who must eventually choose between assimilation and the wild black man she finds herself attracted to, reflecting assimilation policies being touted at the time. A few films emerged with Aboriginal characters during the Australian New Wave—including Walkabout, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (Fred Schepsi, 1978) and The Last Wave (Peter Weir, 1977)—but for many years they were thought to be “box office poison”. What better way to substantiate terra nullius than to pretend the First Peoples never existed at all. It wasn’t until the early 90s that the first films were made by Indigenous directors like Tracey Moffat (BeDevil, 1993) and Rachel Perkins (Radiance, 1998), though it was a decade after the monumental Mabo decision before we really saw an alternate history emerge in our cinema—with films like Rabbit Proof Fence (Philip Noyce, 2002), The Tracker (Rolf De Heer, 2002) and Ten Canoes (Rolf De Heer, 2002). The millennium also saw the emergence of groundbreaking directors like Sen and Warwick Thornton, who began telling contemporary stories about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dispossession for themselves.
Despite the veneer of genre, Mystery Road has as much to say about Indigenous politics as his realist films. “Your children will have a pretty good future. You’re a lucky man,” Swann tells Bailey, as they survey the property he owns – a subtle comment on the privileges beget by a stolen land. But for the black kids in the community, things are far grimmer. Swann knocks on the door of fibro houses, where parents neck beer, chain-smoke and sleep during the day. The drug trade seems to be the town’s only thriving industry, and rural ennui leaves teenagers with not much else to do. Rumours circulate that the murdered girl and her friends were prostituting themselves to truckers on the highway to reimburse unscrupulous dealers.
The more Swann searches, he realises the mystery he must confront is his own past. When he left his alcoholic wife (Tasma Walton) and escaped to the city, he deserted his daughter Crystal (Tricia Whitton) too. While he tries to unravel the machinations of the drug trade, which his colleague Johnno (Hugo Weaving) may or may not be in on, each interviewee ends up telling him something about his estranged child. “She’s a beautiful girl, but you should learn to look after her,” Johnno tells him with patent threat. Like Daniel in Toomelah or Vaughn and Lena in Beneath Clouds, it’s nearly impossible for Crystal to break out of these destructive cycles. Sen often uses non-professional actors from the communities he films in, whose lives aren’t far removed from those he depicts on screen; Beneath Clouds’ young male lead died in a car accident, while several cast members of Toomelah went to jail soon afterwards.
Originally titled Moree Girls, Mystery Road is as firmly grounded in real world communities as any of Sen’s previous work. The very same rumours circulated about teenage girls in this Northern New South Wales township, where Sen spent much of his own childhood. His cousin Theresa Binge was murdered in a similar fashion in 2003, found beneath a highway not far out of Goondiwindi where she was last seen. (The 43-year-old’s murder remains unsolved – the police quickly gave up, but her family continue to campaign for further information.) Sen compares the murders of three Aboriginal children in the early ‘90s by a suspected serial killer with the coverage given to Jillian Meagher: “There’s not the effort put in, and it’s not just the police that are guilty, but it’s our media too. It doesn’t make the headlines,” he told the Australian.
There is a moment in each of Sen’s films where his characters are forced to acknowledge Australia’s painful history. Near the end of Beneath Clouds, and the end of Lena and Vaughn’s journey, they pass beneath an imposing cliff face. Its beauty is at odds with the story Vaughn recounts of the massacre that took place there, people herded to the edge of the cliff and shot at before falling to their deaths. Similar scenes occur in short films Wind – the tracker meets the ghost of an ancestor in the bush, and Dust (2000) – a fistfight brought on by a racist slight is interrupted by a willy-willy, which reveals the burial ground that lies just beneath the earth’s surface. In Mystery Road, this moment comes in the form of a gunslinging finale on Slaughter Hill, an outcrop on the outskirts of the town. Staging this stylised shootout on a site named for the butchery that took place there years ago suggests that these battles are not over yet.
Mystery Road’s irony is that Swann’s investigation can never be totally solved. The town is built on haunted country, a landscape brimming with ghosts. Sen doesn’t want to exorcise them, but like in Dust their bones must rise. It’s only then that the highway finally returns Swann to his family and his home, just before the bloody twilight recedes into the night.
 Sen explored the figure of the tracker in his 1999 short Wind, though they were brought into the wider consciousness by Rolf De Heer in the 2002 film The Tracker, in which an unnamed guide (David Gulpilil) is employed to find another black man accused of murdering a white woman. Casting Gulpilil here harks back to his first role in Walkabout, where he played a variation of the noble savage who saves two British children lost in the unforgiving bush.
 Jedda falls to her death at the film’s end, effectively punished for her sexual and cultural transgression.
Rebecca Harkins-Cross is film editor at The Big Issue and theatre critic at The Age. Find her online at rebeccaharkinscross.com.
This piece is from our most recent print issue, TLB20. You can grab a copy for yourself, if you like.