Goldstone has been pitched as Ivan Sen’s sequel to his 2013 film Mystery Road. It’s probably more accurate to describe the film as a spin-off, or another entry in an anthology series, with detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) transplanted into a new location and a ‘new case’. But in comparison with Mystery Road—a successful film in its own right—Goldstone feels like just a bit of a reboot as well, or at the very least a conscious and self-evaluating re-tooling. Once again Sen assumes writing, directing and even composing duties and what emerges is a more assured film, building on the strengths of its predecessor while engaging in oblique self-criticism; Mystery Road is a beautiful film, but its sparse surroundings are mirrored in its characters and plotting, its bleak tone occasionally revealing not just a thematic premise but a certain humourlessness. In Goldstone, Sen arrives with a more engaging project, an identifiable location and genre but with a dose of character and idiosyncrasy, and this informs the performances as well—in addition to Pedersen’s masterful performance, the film lets us come to know Swan more intimately.
Local cop in the town of Goldstone, Josh (Alex Russell) pulls over a swerving car, and takes in its intoxicated driver to the small police station in town. The suspect is Pedersen’s Swan, in town assigned to a missing persons case, a young Chinese girl suspected to be involved in a broader sex trafficking operation in the small town. After an attempt on his life, Swan soon sees links between his case and both the office of the mayor (Jacki Weaver) and the local mining sites, which are under the watch of a snivelling manager (David Wenham). Connected again is the continued exploitation of the land by the ominous mining conglomerate, with the latest expansion pending the consent of local Indigenous elders, including the resistant Jimmy (David Gulpilil).
For all its noir and detective overtones, there’s surprisingly little in the way of a whodunnit—the plot feels like a pared down Chinatown or True Detective in the way it reconciles broader, structural conspiracies through the handful of instantly suspicious characters we come to meet. But the characterisations and plotlines are so broad and familiar that the twists and revelations seem more like inevitable pieces to the puzzle falling into place. We certainly don’t spend much time guessing or in suspense, and yet there’s something captivating the entire time; it’s not dramatically satisfying in conventional plotting terms, but through its atmosphere and visuals manages to convey a lot more than the film likely did on paper. Goldstone succeeds in individual scenes where the often-striking lighting set-ups work with Sen’s deliberate framing—a scene inside an absurdly kitsch one-woman brothel caravan, wildly lit with pink neon ends with a really intoxicating, wordless embrace with Jay that tells us so much more about his own vulnerabilities and needs than the countless “I’ve heard about you, Jay” monologues peppered throughout both films.
So too the film’s broader themes come across, writ large in Sen’s cinematography. The ominous presence of capitalism clashing with the beauty and spirituality of the outback is particularly impressive; lurking in the corners of every frame. Connected is the pervasive sense of surveillance – twice Jay finds himself looking into a security camera, and in the wide open, expansive outback other characters seem to always be tracking his every mood; and Sen’s favoured birds-eye drone shots echoes this while contextualising Jay in the wide landscapes. The cruel message is clear – Jay can’t hide in this landscape, as an Indigenous man he feels like an outsider on the earth that has been continually under the control of an expansive, anonymous foreign power. Only in the moving final coda is this reversed; and once again Pedersen’s talents makes the wordless sequence work.
And sometimes it’s just gorgeous – the Only God Forgives blue-red colour scheme kicks in a a few interior scenes; such as in the scenes inside the makeshift brothel near the mine, an immaculate interior set of rooms inside a trailer bar. It’s probably an overly sanitised drawing, but it’s an absurd and spatially confusing few sequences resembling something like the charmed tents in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Sen’s knack for action returns as well, with a callback to the sniper scenes in Mystery Road, and then a thrilling close-range gun battle through a mining settlement toward the film’s climax that shows Sen’s rare mastery of editing and kinetic intuition as a filmmaker.
The rest of the cast are serviceable – Wenham and especially Weaver don’t hold any cards to their characters chests with two great, camp performances as the on-screen manifestations of the broader menaces facing the town, and Alex Russell sincerely plays a broadly written arc of his policeman Doing The Right Thing. Sen’s slight tin ear for dialogue certainly hampers some scenes from truly lifting off, but they feel less like the video game cutscenes for plot progression that they did in the previous film.1 But when so much of what is considered (and more vitally, funded) as prestige Australian cinema are adaptations of plays and other literary projects, these flaws are easy to overlook in light of what we do get – a film of genuine authorial vision and a distinctive and meaningful visual style. Goldstone is not just a breath of fresh air, but something of a triumph.
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