The road is long, with absolutely no winding turns. It's sunbaked and dusty, like everything else in the outback, and it cuts right across a bloody big cattle station.

A rugged looking bloke in a cowboy hat and double denim is driving down it in a four-wheel drive – he's the detective, and he's there to investigate a case of suspected foul play.

This is all you could ever really ask for in a television series, isn't it? Mystery Road is a spin-off of director Ivan Sen's 2013 film of the same name, and its follow-up, Goldstone. A pair of slow-burning outback crime classics, they boasted some stunning cinematography and introduced a great lead character in Aaron Pedersen's gritty detective, Jay Swan.

This new adaptation, with most of the key players back in front of and behind the lens, is one of the more true and satisfying spin-offs you'll find. The case Detective Swan is handed on arrival at Tony Ballantyne's quarter million acre cattle station is a proper mystery: two young farm hands are missing. All he has to work with is a ute, stranded in the middle of nowhere with all the doors open and the engine left running.


"I called in a detective because I think something's gone badly wrong here," explains the local top cop Emma James, portrayed with swagger by Australian screen legend Judy Davis. Senior Sergeant James, whose sunglasses and blunt haircut make her look like she'd be better placed editing a fashion magazine, turns out to be the cattle station owner's sister.

Judy Davis as Emma and Aaron Pedersen as Jay in Mystery Road.
Judy Davis as Emma and Aaron Pedersen as Jay in Mystery Road.

"It was me or no one," she explains to the taciturn Swan. "An Aboriginal kid and a backpacker, no one's sending out their best and brightest … no offence." The missing kids are Marley Thompson, an up-and-coming indigenous footy star, and Reese Dale, an Aussie backpacker who sounds dodgy as all hell. Swan saunters around what passes for a town like a sheriff in a Western trying to get answers, but it's like getting blood from a stone.

The locals are tight-lipped and untrusting of a big city detective – all his leads come second or third-hand, mentioned in passing at the hotel or outside the tattoo parlour. His daughter shows up out of the blue and gets in a scrap with Marley's girlfriend while I Put a Spell On You plays on the hotel jukebox. The place is crawling with crystal meth and shady backpackers. Cattle rustling is on the rise in the area ever since stock prices went up.

Pederson and Davis as the detective and top cop are the undeniable stars here, but the wider cast is strong too. Deborah Mailman, who seems to be in just about every Australian show made in the last 10 years, makes a brief appearance as Marley's mum. There's more to come from her, you have to suspect, and a lot more skeletons in a lot more closets.

• Mystery Road, SoHo, 8.30pm Thursdays