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'Mystery Road' Drops on Acorn
August 20, 2018  | By David Hinckley

Even by the standards of small-town crime drama, the citizens in Mystery Road have an astonishing per capita ratio of secrets.

Mystery Road, an Australian tale that becomes available Monday on the streaming service Acorn, starts with a disappearance in the middle of nowhere.

Two backpackers find a truck abandoned in a remote corner of a cattle ranch that spans a quarter of a million acres. Lots of hamburger.

Since there’s no reason to park there, miles from essentials like water, and no vehicle occupants are anywhere in sight, Senior Sergeant Emma James (Judy Davis) gets the case and calls in Detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen).

She’s a local, he’s an out-of-towner, and if you think that sounds vaguely familiar, perhaps it’s because pairing a native with an outsider has been a central element of the setup in a dozen recent police dramas, from Broadchurch to Sharp Objects.

It gives the writers a little more to work with, and in Mystery Road, they navigate this added leeway well.

James has an easy familiarity with almost everyone in town, it seems, though there’s a big asterisk. The aboriginal population doesn’t have much trust in, or use for, white police officers, who are seen as enablers of a discriminatory society.

She hears a lot of lies as she starts hunting for information on the two apparent occupants of the abandoned vehicle, aboriginal farmhand Marley Thompson (Aaron McGrath) and his shady friend Reece Dale (Connor Van Vuuren).

Marley’s distraught family is ambivalent about the police, who have information they want, but whom they don’t fully trust. Other people who might know something claim to know nothing.

James doesn’t press people at first, preferring to play a longer game. Swan has no such compunction or patience.

Swan also has secrets of his own, starting with his daughter Mary (Tasma Walton), who shows up at an inconvenient time and immediately confirms she is a magnet for whatever trouble is about. When you’ve been in town for five minutes and already started a barroom brawl, that’s not a coincidence. That’s a gift.

Mary’s hiding her own secrets, which puts her in harmony with everyone from sleazy two-bit meth distributor Eric Hoffman (Benjamin Hoetjes) to the owner of that massive ranch, Tony Ballantyne (Tony Friels). James and Swan must hack their way through a maze of misdirection and flat-out deception to start realizing that all the secrecy is rooted in something deeper and more disturbing than two missing persons.

If the story has familiar elements, they get a fresh take from Davis and Pedersen, who play their cops as tough and somewhat hardened at the same time they wrestle with tender spots in their own lives.

Mystery Road runs six episodes, and beyond the story, it’s a lovely travelogue for a rugged part of the world. While you wouldn’t necessarily want to move there, the scenery deserves its reputation.

The story that unfolds in front of it isn’t bad, either.

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