Ivan Sen’s sequel of sorts to the excellent Mystery Road (2013) only enhances his reputation as one of our finest current directors. Using social commentary in subtle, intelligent ways, he returns us to the life of troubled detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pederson) as he enters the sparsely populated Goldstone district on a missing person’s case. Here, corruption is the underlying force determining the nature of interactions and, inevitably, the outcome of all things. A mining deal framed by a sleazy head of operations (David Wenham) and his co-conspirator, dodgy Mayor (Jackie Weaver), hinges on the assent of an Aboriginal elder (David Gulpilil), complicating Swan’s discovery of a link between his own case and the secret spiriting in and out of town of young Chinese women to use as prostitutes. Swan’s progress is interrupted by his battle with internal demons and an ambitious young local cop, Josh Waters (Alex Russell), full of natural suspicions about interlopers and living well off strong personal relationships with the townsfolk.
Pederson has been gifted the role of a lifetime by Sen. Swan is a fascinating, compelling character, flawed in obvious ways and psychologically wounded by past events but possessing an iron-will determination to do his job even if he gets side-tracked in an occasional alcoholic fog. His belligerence and resistance to the authority of the land are never exhibited in clichéd, overly demonstrative ways. Sen’s dialogue, as it was in Mystery Road, is superb, distinguished by its economy and a rare ability to create credible, animated moments for even brief characters. His subtly inflected social commentary is telegraphed through Swan who, with just a handful of tossed barbs, provides a heartfelt, corrosive reminder of alternate views of unacknowledged aspects of our country’s past and present.
It’s a testament to both director and actor that Swann resonates as he does; as a powerful voice of reason and conviction, compelled by a social imperative, an internalised agony and a sense of aching with the impotence generated by casually cruel injustices. Russell is superb as the confident but malleable young cop, whilst Weaver and Wenham are an acidic duo as the instigators of the town’s descent into a cesspool of degenerative greed and exploitation; neither is above remotely decided upon ‘elimination’ as a means to an end.
Sen’s vision for his characters in Goldstone (2016) is deeply embedded in the context of their surrounds; the landscape binds every perspective with reminders of the harsh and barren place into which anything, including moral perspectives, can evaporate without a trace. Working as his own D.P., Sen propels his camera skyward to further impel us with a bird’s eye of this often falsely beautiful terrain traversed by Swan. His now trademark overhead view – employed judiciously and to delirious effect on occasion – feels remarkably fresh and organically empowering as a descriptive tool. It’s also sensuously inclusive of his audience who are never jolted out of the film’s narrative slipstream in which immersion becomes natural and willingly sought. Sen, as with previous films, composes his own score, and his work here – sparsely used for maximum impact – is his finest yet. It brings moments of transcendence and pain alive with vivid, evocative aural colours that tap into Swan’s fluctuating emotional states within key scenes.
One quibble about the film might be Sen’s slight concession to the creation of a stock action scene moment; it mostly plays out without a hitch even if a couple of slightly unfeasible scenes around it put the most minor dent in the compellingly strong narrative. Otherwise, Goldstone works on almost every level; the material is confidently handled by Sen, the sobering tale full of complexity, nuance and rendered with a deep respect for history, his land and an eternal, soul-searing pursuit for justice. Here’s hoping for Swan’s return in a third feature.