Goldstone’s scattershot themes are too unfocused and its characters too underdeveloped to hit home.
Australian indigenous director Ivan Sen’s Goldstone mirrors the atmosphere of its namesake town, a dry, arid Outback locale with vast spans of nothingness lying between its threadbare structures. Occasionally along the way, there are majestic oases, but mostly it takes forever to get nowhere.
Serving as a sequel to Sen’s 2013 picture Mystery Road, this film again follows aboriginal detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) in a slow-burning procedural thriller that wraps itself in socially-conscious trappings. We first find the roguish detective in a bad way, weaving down a barren stretch of highway in the formless mining village of Goldstone, too drunk to speak. Local cop Josh (Alex Russell) pulls him over and makes him dry out in jail, and upon learning that Jay is in town to investigate the disappearance of an Asian tourist, Josh tolerates his presence even as the town’s crooked mayor, Maureen (Jacki Weaver), and the malicious mining boss Johnny (David Wenham), make it clear that Jay’s presence is increasingly unwanted. As Josh puts it, there are snakes about and Jay should watch where he steps.
Through bouts of drunkenness and a few instances of some actual gumshoeing, Jay shames Josh into action as he discovers that the local brothel isn’t just an innocent little whorehouse but is actually a sex-trafficking den, its shrewd proprietor Mrs. Lao (Pei-Pei Cheng) forcing a revolving roster of Asian girls into two-week stints of prostitution to pay off dubious debts. Meanwhile, the Furnace Creek mine seeks to expand its operations into land controlled by indigenous people, with aboriginal elders like Jimmy (David Gulpilil) opposing such industrial action at their own peril. Initially prone to turning a blind eye to an unspoken set of rules within the corrupt community, Josh begins seeing Jay’s point and befriends one of the prostitutes, May (Michelle Lim Davidson), in hopes of getting to the bottom of the darkness that he’s allowed to hide in plain sight within the community he polices.
Goldstone’s most glaring flaw lies in its pacing, as a host of prickly social issues that each deserve their own separate focus are packed into a single feature that nevertheless feels plodding and overlong. The film acts as a series of vignettes more than a cohesive vision, with gunfight and car-chase action sequences popping up spontaneously and presenting little in the way of compelling drama given their randomness and the fact that even main characters are woefully underdeveloped. Despite being a central component of the plot, examination of racial issues is merely glossed over—though there’s much mention of Jay being a “blackfella,” an Australian turn for indigenous people—and the sex-trafficking storyline feels more like a contrivance than an attempt to provoke deeper thought on the subject.
Part of the film’s lack of character development could perhaps be attributed to its status as a sequel, though its storyline isn’t directly tied to Mystery Road and events of that film are only mentioned in passing. Still, the fact that Jay is already an established character in Sen’s storytelling (Sen not only wrote and directed the film, but also is credited for its cinematography, editing, and music) results in his character consisting here of little more than morose drunkenness and a dogged pursuit of the truth. Weaver turns in yet another strong performance, but her corrupt mayor isn’t given nearly as much complexity as the deceptively upbeat menace she exuded in her international breakthrough as a crime-family matriarch in 2010’s Animal Kingdom. Meanwhile, Russell’s turn as the local cop is as flat and unremarkable as the long stretches of sun-choked desert scrub.
Sen’s cinematography may be his greatest achievement in Goldstone, with two scenes featuring Jay in a canoe winding through a gorgeous geological marvel particularly standing out. As in this film’s American noir-western counterparts, the landscape can serve as a stark and unforgiving backdrop to a rough-and-tumble story, but in trying to cover too much ground in a film that nevertheless feels overlong, Goldstone’s scattershot themes are too unfocused and its characters too underdeveloped to hit home.