When I saw Ivan Sen’s 2013 Aussie neo-noir thriller Mystery Road, starring knockout indigenous actor Aaron Pederson as Detective Jay Swan, I thought it was fantastic, and I wanted more films like it. My expectations for its sequel, Goldstone, were pretty damn high, not only due to previous credentials, and the quality of the cast and crew, but because I hoped this might be an opportunity to improve on some of its predecessor’s flaws.
Now that I’ve finally seen it, I can share my thoughts.
It’s not necessary to have seen Mystery Road prior to watching this; there are a handful of references to the previous film’s events and a tragic through-line that connects both thrillers, but Goldstone works as a standalone film too. Having said that, I’d still highly recommend watching them both in order; there’s a sense of existential pain in Goldstone that a bit of context from the previous film clarifies.
The story, which combines elements of the Noir and western genres, revolves around a missing persons case in the mining town of the title, and addresses the likes of sex trafficking, corruption, and the tribulations of a remote community. The plotting isn’t intricate, but a complex whodunit is not what we’re here for. Goldstone’s narrative coherence improves upon some of its predecessor’s problems (a confusing narrative and climax), and while it’s not exactly wrinkle-free, the kinks are minor, and what we see is still a very powerful film.
Goldstone seems a more melancholy film than Mystery Road, which wasn’t exactly a light comedic affair itself. We’re introduced to Pederson’s rugged detective as he blows into town drunk and gets himself locked up overnight by the fresh local cop, Josh (Chronicle’s Alex Russell). Jay is in a much darker place than when we saw him last, the reasons for which are not immediately apparent. It’s an interesting angle to introduce, and just gets better the more we learn about his circumstances, which is executed in a very sparing and effective way.
Russell and Pederson’s are beautifully drawn characters, and wonderfully inhabited by the actors. This is a little more Josh’s film than Jay’s, however, at least in terms of a character arc; we see a lot from his perspective as he struggles with the town’s elastic morals and temptations. These come in the form of Jacki Weaver’s Mayor, Maureen, and David Wenham’s mine manager, Johnny. Weaver’s performance is reminiscent of her work in the excellent Animal Kingdom, her menace hiding behind the sickly-sweet pink frosting of her smile.
I’ve never seen David Wenham look greasier than he does here. It’s a credit to his performance that I wanted much more of his character than the film delivered, although it still works very well with the less-is-more approach.
Michelle Lim Davidson brings a quiet perspective to one of the group of Asian girls flown into town (read: trafficked) to satisfy the men’s needs, and her interactions with Josh build a kind of brittle authenticity between the two of them without falling into the hole of clichéd romance.
David Gulpilil has a pivotal, haunting role as a local man fighting against the town’s corruption. Tommy Lewis is also fantastic as the conflicted chairman of the Land Council; he shares with Jacki Weaver one of the film’s most powerful and understated scenes that hits at the divide between the white and indigenous communities with a single line of dialogue and some brilliant acting.
Perhaps the most wasted here, though, is Michael Dorman’s biker villain, Patch, who seems to serve as the film’s primary physical threat but has virtually nothing to do until the climax. Sadly, the script doesn’t cash in on the actor’s talent.
Goldstone’s is a slow build, taking its time to add layer upon layer of tension and conflict until it explodes in one of the most intense and expertly staged gunfights I’ve seen in a film.
As in Mystery Road, Sen rarely lets Goldstone fall into generic thriller territory; it so often focuses on human fallibility and that frustrating ambiguousness of reality that doesn’t stick to common narrative patterns. Some threads are left loose by the end, simply because the characters here are normal people rather than action heroes, and can’t always achieve every outcome or get every answer.
It’s a thriller but also a human drama, a tragedy that reaches back into history with one hand and scratches at the present with the other, linking the two in a meditation on the long-reaching consequences of human cruelty and oppression.
Ultimately this is a film about loss: loss of family and freedom and history, loss of dignity, and country, and life. Goldstone’s final shot captures this beautifully – it’s heart-wrenching, but manages a kind of bittersweet realisation at the same time. This is a haunting, exhilarating film that stayed in my head well after the credits have rolled.
Sen is an excellent writer and director, but his talents don’t stop there. He’s also the editor, cinematographer, and composed the music for the film, all of which help Goldstone transcend its conventions and surface simplicity.
The score is languid and melancholy, its slow strings following the contours of the narrative without overwhelming them, drawing out the emotion in each shot and scene beautifully.
Speaking of beautiful, the cinematography is nothing short of breathtaking. Every aerial shot – on which the film, to its credit, doesn’t skimp – made me gasp at both the Australian landscape’s desolate beauty and the dark geometries of human encroachment, rendered here like the busy progress of ants.
I often forgot to breathe while I watched Goldstone, and I can’t think of a better compliment to give a film.