GoldstoneJuly 8, 2016
In Goldstone, Indigenous director, Ivan Sen, explores a new cinematic sub-genre. Let’s call it Outback Noir. Instead of darkened rooms and night clubs, the action takes place in the blazing Australian desert. Sen’s characters don’t sit at a bar with shadows from a Venetian blind falling over their faces, they squint in the glare of the noonday sun. Most noirs are claustrophobic, but Goldstone is set in an expansive landscape that reduces human beings to the status of insects.
Film noir is a notoriously hard category to define. We can all agree that The Maltese Falcon or Laura are examples of the genre, but there is no common set of traits, only vague affinities. There is usually a crime and a detective, but not always. There is usually a femme fatale and a bleak, ambiguous ending, but not always. We can expect some kind of psychological disturbance and a few imaginative camera angles, but identifying a noir is largely a matter of feeling.
The only thing that is indisputably noir in Goldstone is the detective himself. Aaron Pedersen is back for a second stint as Jay Swan, the Aboriginal policeman from Mystery Road (2013), where Sen’s noir fetish began. In that movie Jay returned from the city to find his hometown transformed into a hotbed of drugs, teenage prostitution, racism and murder. In Goldstone, he ventures further into the interior, to a remote mining settlement that hardly qualifies as a community.
This time he is on a routine missing person assignment, having been sent to look for a young Chinese woman. What he finds is another prostitution racket and another group of murderous villains, but the true source of evil is an unscrupulous mining company with designs on indigenous land.
Even by the dilapidated standards of film noir detectives, Jay is pretty seedy. The film begins with him being pulled over by Josh, the local copper, (Alex Russell) for being too drunk to remain conscious, let alone drive. Jay has gone several blocks down the road to ruin since we last saw him. From a sharp, city-trained investigator he has degenerated into that terrible Aussie stereotype – the drunken abo.
As Jay slowly dries out we learn more of his back story, and watch him click back into crime-fighting mode. Although Josh initially resents his intrusion, the two form a grudging partnership and begin to unravel Goldstone’s dark secrets.
The comical bad guy is Johnny, the mine boss, played in shorts, long socks, and the broadest Aussie accent, by David Wenham. Rather more sinister is Jacki Weaver’s Maureen, the mayor of the town, who has an arrangement with Johnny. A penchant for baking cakes doesn’t disguise her ruthless streak.
Then there is David Gulpilil’s Jimmy, the Aboriginal elder who refuses to comply with the mining company’s proposals; and May, one of a group of young Chinese women who have been flown into the settlement to provide sexual services for the workers. Add a few goons and thugs, and a group of locals who know how to mind their own business, and one has a classic noir recipe.
The general atmosphere of the movie is one of brooding uncertainty. We know that Johnny and co. are the root of the problem but in this lonely part of the world they exercise an absolute power. We know that Jay and Josh are the designated heroes, but they have to overcome their respective temptations to make headway. In Jay’s case the enemy is morbid introspection and dissipation, for Josh it is the line of least resistance – accepting that it is easier to turn a blind eye than to stand up for abstract justice.
Although there is no genuine femme fatale in this film, May’s character continues a noir tradition of treating Asian women as exotic and inscrutable. Sen departs from tradition by introducing the theme of Aboriginal land rights, but brings us back by letting Jimmy take Jay down a mystical gorge in a canoe, letting us imagine there are unseen forces at work that defy the petty machinations of human greed.
It would be fun to carry on isolating noir elements in Goldstone, but the intellectual pleasure of this game is no compensation for the brittleness of the plot or the caricatural nature of the protagonists. Despite Sen’s considerable talents as a filmmaker (he even composes the music!), he never manages to draw us into the story, or make us feel much empathy with Jay.
There is a lot to admire in Goldstone but it lacks the tension and the brooding atmosphere of a classic film noir. It’s an entertainment, not a window onto the darkest recesses of the soul. We can be amused by figures such as Johnny and Maureen, but never see them as truly menacing. I’ve always believed that Australian artists have no feel for tragedy, but now I’m wondering if – beyond the gore fest of Wolf Creek – any local director can ever make crime feel convincing in the ancient, spirit-riddled landscape of Central Australia.
Written & directed by Ivan Sen
Starring Aaron Pedersen, Alex Russell, Jacki Weaver, David Wenham, David Gulpilil, Michelle Lim Davidson
Australia, rated M, 110 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 9th July, 2016.