Australia is the new South Korea. No, that’s not the title of Jenji Kohan’s latest project about a ragtag Outback family that practices cutesy incest and quirky torture-porn revenge killings. It’s a realization I’ve come to after watching Animal Kingdom, The Snowtown Murders, The Rover, Wolf Creek and a handful of other extremely bleak, atmospheric and depraved Aussie films.
The common threads among these titles? They’re all good—some of them really good. They all also attract the same type of viewer that took pleasure in Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, I Saw the Devil, The Chaser, The Man from Nowhere… again, the list goes on.
The bottom line: If you like cinematic savagery, revenge tales, serial killer flicks and moody, thought-provoking horror mysteries that make Saw look like the slasher genre’s village idiot, then look no further than eastward (South Korea) and Down Under.
While I’ve already chronicled a few of the great South Korean titles on Netflix Instant, I must admit that I’ve had trouble coming up with a comparable streaming list for what some have dubbed “neo-Ozploitation“—the current wave of flicks that harken back to the blood, sex and existential bleakness that was low-budget Australian cinema in the ’70s and ’80s. One reason for this is that, at least in terms of modern-era comparisons, the South Korean flicks are, generally, slightly superior. The other is that Netflix Instant has a strong reservoir of dark South Korean titles, but a less impressive one for the Aussies.
The Snowtown Murders, for example, is a more-than-decent, gruesome true-crime flick. And I’d say The Horseman, a bloody revenge tale, is even stronger than Snowtown. Both are on Netflix Instant. But neither of these stack up to heavyweights like I Saw the Devil or the Vengeance Trilogy (also on Instant). Chief among the best dark films to come out of Australia in the past decade would be Animal Kingdom, The Proposition (a Western), The Rover and Chopper. Unfortunately, none of these are available streaming. (Note: I have yet to see The Babadook or The Loved Ones, but… they aren’t on Instant either. And Wake in Fright, which would have been a great intro to this movement, just got removed.)
Which begs the question: What’s a poor guy who blogs about great, dark Netflix Instant movies to do when he wants to focus on Australian murder cinema?
I guess I’ll dive into a flick that was just released which, while not great, is a solid-enough addition to the canon of Australian crime cinema—as well as something that’s far less likely to be known than Snowtown or The Horseman. Then I’ll leave it up to the Redditing hordes to point and chastise me in the direction of a follow-up piece.
Oh, and as for Wolf Creek, it’s not available either. Wolf Creek 2, however, is. Now personally, I loved both of these. But there’s a certain level of campy horror you have to be into to like the Wolf Creeks. Still, if you dug the first one, Wolf Creek 2 is just as good, if not more outrageously enjoyable (and its best scene is a hilariously gory homage to Wake in Fright.)
Anyway, on to our feature presentation, and in the words of Mick Taylor…
Like many a recent Aussie crime flick, a mood of grim, existential pondering looms heavy throughout director Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road. This is achieved largely through lingering shots of sublime Outback landscapes and the depiction of one man’s quest for justice in a lawless and corrupt culture. For the majority of the film, the seeming futility of our hero’s endeavor only adds to this bleak aura.
This recipe has been done over and again in Aussie films as of late. Why? Probably because there’s a certain intrigue to the isolated creepiness of the Outback, as well as the question of which forces will emerge victorious in situational throwbacks to the uncivilized, badlands of Spaghetti Westerns.
Set in rural Queensland, Mystery Road introduces the stoic Det. Jay Swan (Aaron Pederson) as he investigates the murder of a teenage prostitute. Foul play is at hand, but because the deceased was Aboriginal, no one in “Jay-boy’s” white-bread department seems to give two shits. As Jay slowly (and I mean languorously fucking slowly) connects the dots between his family, trucker Johns, drug dealers and possible “wild super dogs,” he begins to realize that his department’s neglect of the murder goes much deeper than mere racism.
A strong supporting cast includes Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith from The Matrix) as a duplicitous narc, and an uncle of Jay’s (Jack Charles) who bears a striking resemblance to traditional Western depictions of that “Jesus’ dad” guy.
But back to that “grim, existential crime drama” recipe. Just because it’s an intriguing one, that doesn’t mean its inclusion automatically creates an intelligent thriller. I’m sure many would use the terms “contemplative” or “meditative” to express what’s going on in Mystery Road and films like it. Of course, to others, such terms are pretentious euphemisms for “really fucking long and boring.” Personally, I’d say Mystery Road falls somewhere in between those two realms of an artfully crafted mood piece and a film that, quite honestly, doesn’t have enough to say to justify its run time of 121 minutes.
That said, here’s why Mystery Road works for me: When this blog first started, I talked about the idea of grim, existentialist thrillers working as a sort of relaxant for certain cinematic brains—just like the fad of ASMR. Mystery Road is exactly the kind of movie I was talking about. The pacing is slower than a crippled echidna, but I found the entire ride very satisfying. Essentially, it’s just 100 minutes of high-tension, low-action crime trance, followed by a refreshingly loud and bloody payoff. In other words, I’d argue that the climax of Mystery Road not only justifies the prolonged lull that precedes it, but that the lull itself is intriguing in its own right. Then again, it’s really only worthwhile if you’re the kind of person that gets off on that sort of trance piece…
So let’s do a quick litmus test: Did you enjoy Nicolas Winding Refn’s highly divisive Only God Forgives? If so, you’ll be just fine with Mystery Road. If you didn’t like that as a mood piece (forget the narrative), you should probably steer clear of this flick—although, to its credit, the climactic scene is much more rewarding in Mystery Road. And while it doesn’t completely resolve itself, there is certainly more of a discernible story line than in Winding Refn’s feature-length karaoke video.
For another comparison’s sake, perhaps it’s best to view Mystery Road as a slightly better, artier, longform Outback rendition of an episode of Longmire. (Aaron Pederson could definitely hold his own in a cop series.)
Mystery Road doesn’t reach the heights of Animal Kingdom or The Proposition, but its certainly no disservice to the “neo-Ozploitation” fad. The only issue I have with the current state of this genre? We need more of it.
NOTES: If you get on an Australian film kick and want to get back to some classics via DVD, also check out Picnic at Hanging Rock and Walkabout. And here’s a fantastic list of some classic Ozploitation flicks.
-Also, Noise on on Netflix Instant is a strange-but-worthwhile modern Aussie cop thriller (its big-city setting, among other factors, rendered it unrelatable to other titles in this post.)
-And lastly, I made it through this entire piece without a “shrimp on the barbie” joke. You’re welcome.