Over the past few decades, Australian cinema has developed its own style of noir, one that adapts the classical tones and textures of the genre into a distinctly Australian flavour, often dictated by the landscape the action takes place in. They’re moody, atmospheric and masculine, foregoing dialogue for tortured subtext. In fact, thanks to the success of films like ‘Animal Kingdom’ (2010), the form has almost become a cliché - so much so that when a film comes playing with these tropes but rising above their familiarity, it’s a cause for celebration. Writer and director Ivan Sen achieved this with his 2013 film ‘Mystery Road’, and now does it again with its follow-up ‘Goldstone’, a beautifully constructed and affecting piece of Australian noir that leaves one hell of an impression.
‘Goldstone’ revisits Indigenous detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) from the previous film, this time investigating a report of a missing Asian tourist around the mining town of Goldstone. As he begins to investigate though, under the disapproving watch of young local cop Josh (Alex Russell, 'Bait', 'Chronicle'), he begins to discover even more sinister goings-on in the town, from prostitution to corruption to the slow destruction of its local Aboriginal community. Suddenly, Jay has to watch his own back as well as uncover the truth about Goldstone.
I went into ‘Goldstone’ without having seen ‘Mystery Road’, but that didn’t affect at all my enjoyment of the film. These kinds of austere Australian films have become tired and dull, but there’s something incredibly hypnotic about ‘Goldstone’ that holds you from the beginning. As well as writing and directing, Ivan Sen also acts as cinematographer, editor and composer, and it’s quite a shock how obviously holistic the execution of the film actually is. All the creative elements are in perfect harmony, and all of them incredibly bold. The cinematography gives us a view of the vast Australian landscape that’s both inventive and oppressive, the camera pointing straight down from impossible heights like the eyes of a bird of prey. As well as being an impressive technical exercise, the watertight screenplay somehow tackles an enormous list of ideas and issues without making any of them seem self-conscious. Its racial politics are direct and uncompromising, not just between the white townsfolk and the minorities around them, but within the minorities themselves. Both the film and Jay speak towards how the indigenous population can define themselves as an invaded and colonised people, whether to comply or to protect their heritage. It also speaks to the racism inherent in Australia as a country, both in how it has mistreated its indigenous people and how it was built on the mistreatment and exploitation of its Asian population. On top of that, it speaks to land ownership, the function of the police force, xenophobia and complex mechanisms of small town communities, all the while managing to function as a noir crime thriller full of narrative twists and turns. It’s a remarkable balancing act, handling so many complex ideas as well as delivering a technically impressive feat of filmmaking, but Ivan Sen achieves this with finesse and grace.
It’s a remarkable balancing act, handling so many complex ideas as well as delivering a technically impressive feat of filmmaking, but Ivan Sen achieves this with finesse and grace.
It also helps that Jay Swan is an instantly arresting anti-hero, a credit to both Sen and Aaron Pedersen. Jay is a character hell-bent on self-destruction, whether by his own hand or in the service of a greater good. He is a good man caught on a dangerous path only he can walk, and with no idea where it will lead him. Sen’s screenplay keeps Jay’s dialogue sparse, so much of the work rests on Pedersen’s shoulders, crafting Jay into a detailed and complex figure. He dominates the screen whenever he is on it, holding your attention with his arresting and often difficult performance. It’s no wonder both Sen and Pedersen felt a need to revisit this character - just from ‘Goldstone’ alone, I can imagine there being so much more to explore with him, a kind of indigenous cowboy vigilante version of Philip Marlowe.
The supporting cast hold their own beautifully alongside Pedersen. Alex Russell is terrific as Josh, a young cop caught between his moral duties and the allure of those seeking to corrupt him. Russell’s youthful, bombastic energy works beautifully alongside the tortured Jay. It also features Jacki Weaver as homely and sinister Goldstone mayor Maggie, David Wenham as oily mining contractor Johnny, and Tommy Lewis and David Gulpilil as indigenous community leaders Tommy and Jimmy, both caught between protecting their community and caving in to the demands of the mining industry. It’s a wonderfully strong ensemble, and all of whom adhere to the noir tone Ivan Sen has so carefully set. As Jay and Josh finally reach an endgame, the film and its characters reach an explosive climax that will define the actions of Goldstone and its inhabitants.
‘Goldstone’ is a film populated by ghosts - an Australian past built on the exploitation and mistreatment of minorities in the relentless strive for "civilisation". It’s an incredibly impressive piece of Australian cinema, one that balances technical skill, important questions and edge-of-your seat entertainment. Ivan Sen has thrown down the gauntlet for one of the best Australian films this year, and if it achieves the financial success it so clearly deserves, will continue to explore the enigmatic figure of Detective Jay Swan and his continuing journey towards his (and our) redemption.