Goldstone is our next great Western. That may sound like an oxymoron given that the film takes place in Australia, but it’s a paragon of a genre that has increasingly questioned history’s displacement of indigenous people, and the experience of belonging to a country that doesn’t care about you because of the color of your skin. Directed by Ivan Sen (and a sequel to his 2013 film Mystery Road), Goldstone is a stunning piece of work. Released in Australia in 2016 and finally making the jump to the U.S. now, it’s also a discomfiting movie for our times.
The film opens with old photographs from the Australian gold rushes, immediately setting the stage for a story about post-colonialism, exploitation, and the value of money over land, as the faces of Aboriginal peoples and Chinese immigrants flash by. Quickly enough, the yellowed images give way to a yellow landscape, through which Josh (Alex Russell) barrels, hot on Jay’s (Aaron Pedersen) tail. Though they’re both cops, they’re opposites in almost every other way. Josh is a young, white man, and though he’s not on the take, he’s willing to let certain things slide. Jay is older, indigenous (Pedersen himself is of Arrernte/Arabana Australian Aboriginal descent), and determined to see justice done, though he’s such a mess that it’s debatable that he’ll get anywhere at all (the two of them first meet when Josh pulls Jay over for driving drunk).
The setup is familiar—one young cop, one tough-and-grizzled cop—but there’s not much else in the film that’s so easy to call. This isn’t a buddy cop story, nor is it a tale of reconciliation and hero-appropriate personal growth. The film is reminiscent of David Mackenzie’s superb Hell or High Water in that sense: People grow on their own terms rather than to satisfy some overarching moral compass.
Goldstone is rotting. Money holds sway over the whole town as the population dwindles, and the local mining company, with the help of the mayor (Jacki Weaver), attempts to expand into indigenous land in order to get at the mineral deposits underneath. To further complicate matters, the mining company is also involved in trafficking young Chinese women, using their land as grounds to get them in and out without dealing with immigration laws. It’s the disappearance of one of the girls that brings Jay into town. Being indigenous, he’s already seen as an outsider in Goldstone; and if that weren’t enough, he’s looking for a missing sex worker, so the mayor and her cronies are eager to see him get the hell out of Dodge.
Though Sen’s definition of “good” is malleable, “bad” is fairly clear. As Maureen, Weaver is as chilling as she was in Animal Kingdom (when she bakes Jay a pie, she might as well be offering him a poisoned apple), and has no qualms about dispatching anyone who might stop the land deal from going through. “There’s billions of dollars out there,” she says, as the investigation begins to ramp up. “How do you think that compares with an old black fellow or a lone Asian girl?” Even Johnny (David Wenham, in spectacles and shorts), the head of the mining company, isn’t quite as unscrupulous.
But the most interesting of the villains is Mrs. Lao (Cheng Pei-Pei), the woman who runs the brothel—in itself an interesting examination of the commoditization and fetishization of Asian cultures—and makes sure that none of the girls cause any trouble. She doesn’t quite fall into the same black-and-white metric that Maureen does by virtue of also being an “outsider.” There’s only so much freedom that can be had in a place where racial segregation and sexism are inherently a part of the system. “The world was not made for you,” she tells a would-be runaway. “You were made for it.”
Jay struggles with similar issues, as he’s seen as unwelcome by Maureen, Johnny, and even Josh, despite being infinitely more connected to the land that’s the very backbone of the present conflict. Accordingly, his hunt for the missing girl takes him on a soul-searching journey as well, and Pedersen’s performance is so good that it might have obliterated the rest of the film if Sen weren’t so certain in what he’s doing. He’s supported by David Gulpilil as the last holdout of the land council—and the last man unwilling to give up tradition for money.
Goldstone is a slow burn, and Sen takes his time in putting each piece into place before things finally boil over, uneasy quiet giving way to an explosive, jarring sequence that’s as thrilling as any other action set piece in recent years. It’s not the kind of action that most audiences will be used to, either, as it all takes place in bare, open spaces as opposed to racetracks or cityscapes. It feels real, even though the story dips its toe into melodrama as it comes to an end.
As the Old West recedes further and further into the past, the Western movie has had to change. There’s too much in the period of history that it addresses for even a modern spin to ignore, or to pretend that things have completely changed. Goldstone may have touches of the old guard about it, as it’s still a male-dominated story, but it’s placed firmly in the present, in our continued struggles with heritage and history. The specificity in the story—the hints of Walkabout, the parallels between the gold rush and Australia’s current environmental concerns—make it an indelibly Australian film, but there’s no denying that it resonates on a broader level as well.