Goldstone (Ivan Sen, 2016) prod. David Jowsey, Bunya Productions, Aaron Pedersen, Jacki Weaver, Alex Russell, David Gulpilil, David Wenham, Tom E. Lewis; spinoff from Mystery Road; shot Winton, Qld; released 8 June 2016 at Sydney FF; general release 7 July 2016
Luke Buckmaster has written this excellent review for The Guardian, and I'm stealing the whole thing: sosumi.
Cinema itself began with the western: 1903's The Great Train Robbery, which most scholars believe to be the first film to tell a fictitious story. But although Australia has no shortage of rugged outdoors people and harsh picturesque terrain, Australian cinema never had an equivalent style of film-making. The closest we've come is western-ish productions such as The Story of the Kelly Gang.
Likewise, as much as vision of an Akubra-wearing gumshoe detective might appeal, down under noir films were never a thing. In the 1940s and 50s, when guys like Humphrey Bogart wooed dames and dry-gulched cronies, Australian cinema was languishing, or just about to: it produced on average just two features a year from 1952 to 1966.
In the magnificent, big-thinking Goldstone, which played opening night at this year’s Sydney film festival, writer/director Ivan Sen combines two genres we never really had, to make one film no Australian should miss. It is a 'spiritual sequel' to 2013's Mystery Road, meaning the protagonist is the same but it works perfectly fine as a stand-alone story.
In his own drunk-as-a skunk way, weeping pathos from his pores thanks to another exemplary performance from star Aaron Pedersen, the protagonist – detective Jay Swan – is like Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, riding into town to upset the status quo.
Authorities who run the titular out-woop-woop place, including the mayor, Maureen (Jacki Weaver, again in frozen-smile stink-eye mode), have some kind of racket going on. Exactly what it involves will be revealed in time. Suffice to say the last thing they want is a brave outsider upsetting their ecosystem of corruption.
In vintage noir fashion, it all begins with a girl. And like virtually any western, it is – save for a couple of prickly supporting characters – a male-oriented affair. Sen paints a picture of a viciously sexist society where women, in particular sex workers, are stripped of their rights and their identities, and traded like commodities.
Swan visits Goldstone to track down the whereabouts of a missing young Chinese woman. In the first scene he is behind the wheel and pissed as a fart. The horse Swan rides into town on is the back of a divvy van, after being apprehended by young local cop Josh (Alex Russell).
When Maureen visits Josh at the pub, wielding a freshly baked cake, you can tell by the serpentine hiss in Weaver’s voice that he ought to pay attention. A new mine-expansion project is under way, she explains, and it's worth serious bucks – hundreds of millions of dollars. There's a slight complication though: it requires 'blackfella approval'.
Swan is the recipient of numerous lines like 'keep your head down' and 'don’t rock the boat', which you just know is going to have the opposite effect.
A pasty David Wenham, donning a tie with a short shirt and rolled-up socks, is the boss of a mining company in nearby Furnace Creek. Tom E Lewis is the head of the clearly corrupt local Aboriginal land council. But the easy-to-pigeonhole supporting characters (the conniving mayor; the corrupt businessman) primarily serve as reference points for the two leading men to define themselves; the focus of the film remains on them. The presence of mobile sex worker Pinky (Kate Beahan), with her sumptuous retro-pink caravan, provides a great albeit brief counterpoint to most portrayals of sex workers who need to be rescued. Perhaps a second 'spiritual sequel' could follow her story.
As the stakes inevitably increase and Jay and Josh's frenemy relationship leads to a degree of collaboration – the former goading the latter for allowing awful things to happen on his watch – Sen dishes out action with unerring patience. By the time a car chase scene arrives, it has the weight of an already great film behind it. There’s a shoot-out too, but every shot matters and every bullet counts; your body can almost register the impact.
Sen’s cinematography (in addition to writing and directing his films he also shoots, edits, scores and sometimes produces them) avoids the kind of orange-baked, hot, gluggy glaze popularised after 1971's Wake in Fright. Goldstone’s colour grading is sharp and crisp, its visual makeup – replete with seamlessly integrated aerial drone footage – grandiose, but wired in small details.
It’s a gorgeous film to watch, but a better and bigger one to think about. The key to unlocking this hugely ambitious genre hybrid – a classic Australian film and a masterpiece of outback noir – is understanding that Goldstone is a country, not a town, and its name is Australia.
Sen's environmental messages arrive at a time when coal seam gas exploration is a key election issue; meanwhile, corruption allegations involving mining companies and land councils make it clear the story cannot be brushed aside as mere fiction.
Opening images of sepia-toned photographs from the gold rush are crucial. The social and political commentaries underpinning Sen's story paint a picture of a nation that has always, since settlement, prioritised money over land, and has never understood – as Midnight Oil might have put it (before its lead singer became part of the problem) – something as precious as a hole in the ground.
Goldstone belongs to a suite of Australian films that contemplate land ownership in memorable ways, from 1932's On Our Selection to 1950's Bitter Springs and even 1997's The Castle. But it has more weight than any of them, because the film’s spiritual roots hark back to the traditional owners of the land. In a small but moving role David Gulpilil plays a man who cannot be bought; his soul is connected to the ground and the sky.
When Josh suggests to Jay there is no point rebelling, because when the dust settles the dirt of corruption will remain, Jay takes solace in his belief that at least the dirt will be a little thinner.
People change but the system remains more or less the same, Sen seems to be saying. But in that 'less' there is something special, even sacred: the bit in life that says there’s something worth fighting for. What a lot to think about; what a hell of a film.
David Stratton's review in The Australian is disappointing. Most of it retells the story: in other words, it's mostly spoilers. What he does says about the film is negatively concerned with the script. This is not Sen's strength, nor main concern. It's merely something he has to give us punters or we might want our money back. As EM Forster wrote a century ago, 'unfortunately there must be a plot'. Sen is the kind of artistic filmmaker who makes you reach for meaningless terms like Paul Schrader's 'transcendental' - which he feels he needs to use to write about Bresson and Ozu. That's how good I think Sen is: inexpressibly so. ... Here's a bit of Stratton's trivial piece.
Sen’s visualisation of this remote community is stunning, and his overhead shots that look down on the human characters as if they were tiny ants are remarkable. His music score, too, perfectly matches the drama unfolding on screen. Stratton, 2 July 2016.
Garry Gillard | New: 9 June, 2016 | Now: 4 January, 2017