Review by C.J. Bunce
Interesting commonality can be found in the first seasons of two supernatural series, Starz’ 2020 supernatural series The Gloaming, set in Tasmania, and the old Australian town-based 2015 Netflix series Glitch, and a third series, the 2018 Australian outback Western Mystery Road, now streaming on Acorn. Each of these series is anchored by police procedural stories led by male and female leads, and strong leads at that. Each of these straightforward stories could be spliced into any time period, as components of countless cop shows. But the real value of each series is the unique setting. Like the unusual nature of filming a British cop show in the stark, remote north Great Britain in Shetland, here viewers are transported closer to the southern pole. There viewers will find the commonality of a shared past with England, the common language, and the colonial history that forms an active wrench in the relationships between different peoples still today. In Mystery Road, it’s illustrated by the obvious physical differences and characteristics of the loose cannon, cowboy hat-wearing, Western style (with Aussie flare), indigenous Detective Jay Swan, played by Aaron Pedersen (also co-star of The Gloaming) and the confident and wise older local cop, Emma James, played by twice Oscar-nominated actress Judy Davis (A Passage to Indie, Ratched, Impromptu).
In the six-episode first season of Mystery Road, Australia’s #1 drama series, Swan and James are tracking down two missing young men, farm hands on a cattle station co-owned by James and her brother–representing the legacy of outsiders owning and controlling lands and wielding the power over the primarily poor native population. One of the missing boys is indigenous promising sports hero Marley, played by Aaron L. McGrath, one of the high points I mentioned in my review of–you guessed it–Glitch. The other boy is a white “backpacker” and friend to a teenage girl named Shevorne (Tasia Zalar), who is centerpiece of a dark history inside the indigenous community, and she befriends a new co-worker, Swan’s daughter Crystal, played by Madeleine Madden (Picnic at Hanging Rock). Shevorne, a sexual assault survivor, fingered Marley’s uncle for the rape, who went to jail for 10 years. Who really committed the crime is the actual big secret of the season.
The better red herrings are harvested but disappointingly never pan out–both tied to Davis’s cop James, as both her brother and her lawyer ex-husband, played by Mark Mitchinson (The Hobbit movie series, The Shannara Chronicles, and Power Rangers voice actor), are clearly fodder for a more twisty and satisfying potential criminal conspiracy.
Five years prior to the series, Pedersen starred as Detective Swan in an Australian motion picture of the same name, also with Tasma Walton (Cleverman) as Swan’s wife, and co-starring Australian actors and familiar genre favorites Hugo Weaving (The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix) and his niece Samara Weaving (Ready or Not, The Babysitter, Picnic at Hanging Rock). The first season of Mystery Road takes place between the movie Mystery Road, and the 2016 movie Goldstone, which again starred Pedersen, and co-starred David Wenham (The Lord of the Rings, Iron Fist, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) and Pei-Pei Cheng (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Mulan).
As always Judy Davis is superb as a modern cop in a desolate land and a blue police cowboy hat, who will be entirely new for American audiences, and Pedersen is an equal force, holding his own opposite her as another new, but familiar, lead in the Longmire vein of misunderstood hero. Unfortunately Davis did not return for the second season–nor did most of the key characters in Season 1. Season 2 premiered last year in Australia.
It’s the rich location, the striking scenery, expertly delivered by cinematographer Mark Wareham (The Preacher) and Warwick Thornton (The Darkside) that will keep you coming back for more and wanting more.
The story isn’t all that nuanced for a mystery series, but the actors and scenery are worth entering this uncommon police procedural experience. Both Seasons 1 and 2 of Mystery Road are now streaming on Acorn. The movie Mystery Road is streaming free on Peacock, and the sequel movie Goldstone is available on Amazon Prime.