When Ivan Sen’s outback thriller Goldstone opened the Sydney Film Festival in 2016, it garnered considerable praise from critics, with some even hailing it as a masterpiece. Although the film also had a screening at last year’s LFF, it has taken over a year for it to acquire a wider UK release.
The film opens with a montage of vintage photographs showing early aboriginal communities, giving us a flavour of Australia’s rich heritage. Back in the present, Aaron Pederson reprises his role of indigenous Detective Jay Swan, a character he played previously in Sen’s acclaimed Mystery Road (2013), and here turns in another earnest performance. We catch up with Swan this time as he rolls into the remote frontier mining town of Goldstone, somewhat dishevelled and three sheets to the wind. He’s promptly arrested by fresh-faced cop Josh Waters (Alex Russell) for drunk driving and taken back to the station. The police base in this case is little more than an oversized metal shed positioned in the middle of a vast arid dusty landscape. Swan has a troubled past, which is not expanded upon too much in the narrative, suffice to say it involves a crumbling marriage and the tragic loss of his daughter which has prompted him to hit the bottle.
The authorities have sent brooding Swan to Goldstone in search of a missing Chinese girl, though it’s abundantly clear from the get-go that he’s not welcome in this town. Having discovered that he has detained a fellow Officer, Waters advises that any search will be futile and will only lead to a dead end. We learn that this is the location where a large corporation has set up its mining operation nearby in Furnace Creek with ambitious expansion plans on the horizon, guaranteed to generate big bucks, but with scant regard for any environmental impact. They just don’t want some inquisitive stranger poking around asking too many questions and stirring up a storm. Duplicitous company boss Jimmy (David Wenham) is already having difficulties, as before any development can take place he needs “black fella” approval, specifically the Aboriginal Land Council’s blessing. His problem is that one of the elders named Jimmy (David Gulpilil), whose ancestors have inhabited the area for decades, refuses to sign away their land.
With Swan not heeding the initial advice to leave, the point is emphasised in much stronger terms when his van is sprayed with bullets by unknown assailants. This only makes him even more determined to dig deeper, as it appears that Goldstone has many dreadful secrets to hide. Even the Mayor (Jacki Weaver) feels the need to take Swan aside and, despite a sweet smile, warns him coldly “We run a very tight ship, where even the smallest stones can cause mighty big ripples”, before sending him off with one of her freshly baked apple pies. Weaver was wonderful playing the matriarch of a crime family in Animal Kingdom and she lights up the screen again in Goldstone, turning in a wonderful if sinister performance.
Waters may be the only regular lawman for miles, but it seems he’s still finding his way in life, teetering on the brink of corruption with the continual temptation of back handers to turn a blind eye. By contrast Swan has unwavering integrity and is shocked to witness what appears to be an illicit trafficking operation, as a group of young Asian women are discreetly flown into town and then ferried off in a minibus to work for the nefarious Mrs Lao (Pei-Pei Cheng) – who shares a link to the mining company. When Swan reprimands Waters in an early scene for his blinkered approach to all that’s going on around him, it’s a criticism the young Officer takes on board as he gradually accepts more responsibility. In the process he grows concerned for the welfare of May (Michelle Lim Davidson), one of the vulnerable young women being controlled by Lao and exploited as a sex worker. Unlike Mystery Road which focussed solely on Swan as the protagonist, this is very much a two-hander, as both men realise that they must collaborate in order to bring down a monstrous organisation willing to stop at nothing to achieve an objective.
Goldstone is full of familiar faces, including Gulpilil, who has been memorable in so many Australian films over the years – notably Crocodile Dundee. I remember first noticing Russell in the agreeably silly Ozploitation throwback Bait a few years ago, here he rises to the challenge of a significantly larger role and doesn’t disappoint. It‘s just a pity that some of the other supporting cast are wasted in underwritten roles, particularly Wenham and veteran Cheng (best known for her role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), who don’t manage to make much of an impression.
The film is a slow burner, taking time to show off the stunning landscape of Queensland, with high sweeping aerial shots, so that we fully appreciate the vastness of it all. It does remain compelling throughout, with excitingly-staged action (if sporadic) that makes full use of the rugged terrain. Goldstone has been described as LA Confidential meets Walkabout, though I would argue that it’s not quite as accomplished as either of those films. We’ve certainly seen copious tales before about corruption in high places, though one of the themes explored here about the plight of indigenous people fighting to retain land ownership manages to be thought-provoking. Sen seems to have worn many hats on this production - besides directing, he was also responsible for the screenplay, cinematography, editing and composed the music to boot – managing to shine brightly in most departments.
Goldstone arrives in the UK courtesy of AX1 Films (formerly known as Axiom) and is available on either BD or DVD (this review is based on the former).
The film was shot using digital Red Epic cameras and is presented here in the original widescreen ratio of 2.35:1. As you might expect, the 1080p image is pin sharp and vividly captures all the beauty of some spectacular location work in Middleton, Queensland. There are 2 audio options, either 2.0 or 5.1 and both prove highly effective during the action sequences, with a dramatic mine blast in particular that will shake the room. English subtitles are also been included. Absent from this UK release is a commentary track with director Sen and star Pederson that was included with the Australian disc from Transmission Films.
Most of the additional content in this new release from AX1 Films comprises standard EPK material.
Interviews (totalling over 40 minutes): Ivan Sen (17:30), producer David Jowsey (2:15), Aaron Pederson (7:23), Alex Russell (4:10), David Gulpilil (3:53), Jacki Weaver & David Wenham (6:34). Sen provides a brief overview of the film, insisting that Goldstone is the spin-off rather than sequel to his previous film Mystery Road, retaining only the character of Jay. Producer Jowsey accurately describes the film as a contemporary western about the influence of greed and corruption on society. The stars are naturally full of praise for their director, with Wenham referring to him as a “Zen master” while Weaver mischievously adds that he is easy on the eye too!
Gallery (3:30): Includes various stills from behind the scenes.
Trailers: Goldstone and Mystery Road
Goldstone was released in the UK by AX1 Films on 6th November 2017