It’s hard to find a good mystery/thriller on big screens in the summer, the mega bucks going with fantasy, adventure, comedy, and kid flicks. Two new international films have just been released on DVD, though, and they should more than slake the thirst for those looking for thrills with intelligence and style rather than explosions and derring-do.
We’re going Down Under for the first entry, Mystery Road, which practically swept the Australian Film Critics Association Awards in 2014, scoring prizes for Best Film, Actor, Supporting Actor, Screenplay, Director and Cinematography — the last three going to the same person, Ivan Sen. For the most part, Sen may be unknown over here, but I suspect that will change as Mystery Road connects with more people. Its sequel, Goldstone, premiered last month in Australia with the highest expectations given its predecessor’s success.
Mystery Road is a slow burn for most of its two-hour running time, building inevitably to one of the most unusual and realistic shoot-outs in recent memory. Aaron Pederson, of Aboriginal heritage like writer/director Sen, plays detective Jay Swann who’s just returned to his small town in the Outback after time in the big city. His first assignment sets him looking into the death of a young girl whose body was found by a trucker in a culvert under a highway.
No one on the mostly white police force seems overly concerned, since she was just another indigenous hooker/addict, but Swann quickly finds a personal connection — she was also an acquaintance of his estranged teenaged daughter. Inquiries into the dead girl’s life meet with little response, even from Swann’s ex-wife Mary (Tasma Walton) who, unlike her husband, has not given up booze. Most of the film details the detective’s steady pursuit of the elusive clues which lead to other victims as well as the murderous perpetrators.
Pederson is a significant presence in the film, absolutely dominating the scenes despite Sen’s impressive visuals of the sun-drenched dreary town and the barren, looming landscape. It’s a subtle but compelling performance, quite unlike the usual brash detectives who pervade American film. In many ways, he brings to mind Clint Eastwood’s character in Coogan’s Bluff, a cowboy in an alien urban setting, but even more reserved than squint-eyed Clint.
The supporting characters — villains and otherwise — are equally effective and credible. Jack Thompson, a bit of an Aussie icon for work like The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Breaker Morant and The Man from Snowy River, makes the most of his one extended scene as a sympathetic recluse. The well-traveled Hugo Weaving (“Hobbit” and “Matrix” movies among many others) is simply terrific as Johnno, Swann’s fellow cop but dubious ally. Other familiar names and faces are Bruce Spence (The Road Warrior) and Ryan Kwanten (Jason Stackhouse in HBO’s True Blood).
Like Pederson, writer/director/cinematographer Ivan Sen is of mixed Aboriginal heritage, and one real strength of Mystery Road is how the racial themes are pervasive without being invasive. Compared to In the Heat of the Night, for instance, Mystery Road is far more subtle and less overt. Much more is implied about the characters, including Swann, than is ever fully explained, which makes it more interesting and meaningful.
Entry No. 2 in the international summer thriller genre puts us in France with The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun. With a title like that, you can’t help but want to find out what’s next. Kind of like Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45.
Only this Lady is not another chick with a chip on her shoulder. In fact, the film is a remake of a similarly titled 1970 work starring Oliver Reed and Samantha Eggar, in turn based on a novel by noted French author Sebastien Japrisot (A Very Long Engagement). The first film (directed by Anatole Litvank) has been all but forgotten (perhaps unfairly), but the remake by Joann Sfar (Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life) may prompt a re-evaluation.
I say Lady relies more on style than substance — I mean that as a description rather than a criticism. The plot is a mind-twister, at least at the start, but as the story moves to its conclusion, credibility is strained. Still, it’s a lot of fun getting there.
Scottish actress Freya Mavor (fluent in French) gives a star-making performance as Dany, bespectacled, auburn-haired secretary who, on a whim, takes off on a weekend drive in her boss’ flashy car. Winsome but repressed, Dany is soon the victim of mistaken identity (or is she?) as her journey to the sea puts her in contact with strangers who claim to have seen her the day before in different circumstances.
Mysterious attacks, an unexpected sexual encounter, more than one murder, and (of course) a gun eventually appear, accompanied with flash-forwards and backwards, sometimes in split- and even triple-screen. Reminiscent of Brian De Palma’s works, this new Lady is full of visual twists and turns, all to the beat of a driving soundtrack — Gallic razzle-dazzle compared to the Aussie realism of Mystery Road.
Just like in life, so it is in the movies — variety is a welcome spice.