Opening on a set of vintage settler photos showing the history of Chinese-Australian and Indigenous relations in the mining industry, it’s clear Ivan Sen’s GOLDSTONE is intent on laying down a much clearer political message than its predecessor. If Mystery Road was a tip of the hat to the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, then its standalone sequel is a bold examination of contemporary Aboriginal life, mining concerns and human trafficking in the guise of a genre thriller. In other words, it’s one of Sen’s (and Australia’s) most ambitious films to date.
The fortunes of detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) have shifted somewhat, and when he is pulled over for drunk driving by local cop Josh Waters (Alex Russell), Swan is a messy shell of his former straight-edge cop. Ostensibly in town on a missing persons business, his investigations soon run him afoul of Furnace Creek mining company rep Johnny (a wormy pig of a man played with relish by David Wenham) and Goldstone’s pie-baking, eerily-smiling mayor Maureen (Jackie Weaver, only a few shades shy of Animal Kingdom‘s Smurf). Swan soon finds that the fenced-off mining concern is fronting a Chinese prostitution ring amidst a sea of corruption, forcing him to pull his life together and team up with Josh Waters.
Sen’s massive overhead shots of the landscape, filmed on location in Queensland’s Middleton region, give the same sense of enormous and isolating scale that Mystery Road had, yet here it doesn’t quite come with the same nihilistic leanings. For Jay Swan, this is a redemption story, and to maintain the ethos of a standalone thriller, we are never entirely sure what it is Swan is atoning for. Writer/director Sen, who also acts as both the cinematographer and the composer on the film, is responsible for giving the film and the location a roaming atmosphere, one where there is a constant sense of threat around every corner. He’s not beyond a few touches of the surreal either, from a seemingly random neon-lit trailer for Pinky’s (Kate Beahan) mobile brothel, or the incongruous outback hub for the area’s collective seediness, simply known as The Ranch.
Jay Swan, like his creator, is a man who walks between two worlds. Returning to the character specifically because his star Pedersen urged him to do so, Sen explores the tensions between cultures in this film. Occasionally, the point is layered somewhat heavy handedly, but several centuries after the European invasion of Australia, a light touch is the last thing these issues need. We see multiple sides of the coin, through the patently corrupt Aboriginal land council head Tommy (Tom E. Lewis) to the intense spirituality of old Jimmy (David Gulpilil). By the time the inevitable shoot-out occurs, one that ups the ante on even Mystery Road‘s impressive crossfires, there are lingering questions that are perhaps best left for the audience to answer.
Local cinema has struggled to comes to terms with another fine line, between what constitutes an “Australian film” and the commercial aspects of a “genre” film. GOLDSTONE is proof that it can be wholly both, without compromising an iota of either. Filled with plenty of nods to Sen’s beloved Western genre, there a few moment in this film where the stakes feel anything less than high. Slick, darkly comic, and always thrilling, this is the best of what cinema has to offer.
2016 | Australia | DIR: Ivan Sen | WRITERS: Ivan Sen | CAST: Aaron Pedersen, Alex Russell, Jacki Weaver, David Wenham, David Gulpilil | DISTRIBUTOR: Transmission Films (AUS) | RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes | RATING: ★★★★★ (10/10)