Mystery Road: Origin review – Jay Swan is back and as great as ever

Since first arriving on screens in 2013, the Akubra-wearing outback detective Jay Swan has made his mark, joining 1920s fashionista Phryne Fisher and the whiskey-sodden, cardie-wearing Jack Irish in the pantheon of Australia’s all-time greatest screen sleuths. With all the multiverse narratives flying around these days, perhaps Fisher could tumble through a portal into contemporary times and the three could reminisce on their most challenging investigations and favourite “aha, it was you all along” monologues.

Except now the gods of the multiverse would have two Jay Swans to choose from: one played by Aaron Pedersen – who has been the franchise’s gravitas-oozin’ core feature – and a substantially younger version played by Mark Coles Smith. The latter fills some very big cowboy boots in Mystery Road: Origin, thankfully delivering a performance that’s more than up to snuff. Like his predecessor, Coles Smith delivers a gruff kind of sensibility; he’s a very measured, very controlled presence, full of subtle gestures that, cumulatively, have a large effect.

Origin stories often contain dramatic scenarios that unsubtly construct formative events in the creation of a legend: think of how the Star Wars prequels treated Darth Vader. But Mystery Road: Origin – directed by Dylan River (son of the great auteur Warwick Thornton) and written by River, Blake Ayshford, Steven McGregor, Kodie Bedford and Timothy Lee – resists neatly join-the-dot moments, building a dramatically credible space that prioritises gradual reveals.

The show’s twisty plot involves a series of strange robberies in and around the mining town of Jardine, conducted by thieves wearing Ned Kelly-esque masks. River grounds us in a strong sense of community that reminded me sometimes of Patrick Hughes’ 2010 neo-western Red Hill, in which a convicted murderer (played by the great Balang T Lewis) returns to his small town, hellbent on exacting revenge on a dodgy cop played by Steve Bisley. Here, Bisley is back in blue as Sergeant Peter Lovric, this time heading a more diverse cop shop with Swan, Senior Constable Max Armine (Hayley McElhinney) and Constable Cindy Cheng (Grace Chow).

Given it is an origin story – Swan is in his mid-20s at the tailend of the 90s – he feels almost a little too composed and assured here, confidently investigating criminal syndicates and bravely staring down lawbreakers in dangerous situations. He even drops lines such as “I don’t think you ever get used to being shot at”, which could be said by somebody 40 or 50 years his senior. Instead of presenting a hotheaded, wet-around-the-ears cop, the writers take a different, more interesting direction: in some respects, it seems Swan becomes more unhinged as time goes on. After all, Goldstone begins with him being apprehended for drink-driving.

The relationship between Swan and his father Jack (the ever-reliable Kelton Pell) is a core focus, their early interactions casting a long shadow over the series’ six-episode arc. It begins in beautifully cinematic style, with Jack standing on a dirt road running through an effervescent salt lake. Swan gives him a lift, though it’s not immediately obvious they’re father and son; nor that their relationship is strained.

Related: Mystery Road season two review – a new riddle for Aaron Pedersen's troubled detective

All the cast are top notch, including several high-impact supporting performances such as Salme Geransar as a lawyer, Toby Leonard Moore as a local prosecutor, and Clarence Ryan as Jay’s older brother Sputty. I could go on, but the plot is long and coily, weaving together many characters, some whose relevance is only revealed late into the running time.

The narrative beats never feel laboured, and Mystery Road: Origin feels refreshingly about Jay, rather than just using him as a human pathway into a tangled web. A lot of productions of similar length feel structured to suit the one-hour TV format, but River and his team have created a more fluid arc, almost as if the format is bending to them. The narrative expands with a very satisfying sense of overarching purpose, and feels more like a six-hour film than a series of episodes. But the show never outstays its welcome, and, in fact, the same can be said of Swan himself: after two movies, three TV seasons and two different actors, the detective remains a hugely appealing presence.

  • Mystery Road: Origin airs on ABC TV every Sunday night until 7 August. All six episodes are available to stream now on ABC iView.