If you want to avoid becoming the tragic victim of a senseless crime, here’s a tip: stay away from small towns. Going by the last few years of Australian television – and increasingly the big screen as well – the only thing as common in isolated rural communities as murder is the arrival of an outsider not long after to uncover the town’s tangled web of dark secrets.
And so it proves to be with Scrublands, Stan’s latest locally made drama designed to appeal to fans of both Australia’s more interesting tourist-friendly locations and corpses. Working in Scrublands’ favour is the memorable nature of the central crime, which even for the genre is attention-grabbing: one Sunday a year ago, the much-loved local priest (Jay Ryan) in the small town of Riversend walked out to meet his congregation with a high powered rifle in hand and gunned down five people. No wonder the novel it’s based on (by Chris Hammer) was a bestseller.
Experienced mystery watchers will already have their eyes out for clues. Trouble is, our viewpoint character is Sydney Morning Herald investigative journalist Martin Scarsden (Luke Arnold), who arrives in town looking to write little more than a ‘one year on, a battered town begins to heal’ puff piece. This is clearly a step down for such a gun reporter, but what would a mystery be without an investigator hiding a dark past of their own?
Oddly for a town where a priest shot dead five people in the street, it seems that opinion is divided on the gun-toting pastor. The public story is that he was a paedophile who turned on his community when the police were closing in. Yet strangely, ineffectual local constable Robbie Haus-Jones (Adam Zwar), who Scarsden has driven from Sydney to interview, doesn’t seem to want to talk full-stop, not even to push the official line.
The owner of the local bookstore, Mandy Bond (Bella Heathcote), turns on Scarsden when she learns he’s a journalist, the local kids mock him, and the pub’s closed. The story seems a dead end, but he needs the work; he hasn’t delivered a story in months. Is he willing to go deeper than the ‘predator priest goes apeshit’ stories the locals have all heard before? Well, there are three more episodes to go.
Generic setting aside (Australia has two kinds of murderous small towns: dusty ones and damp ones) there’s a lot going on in Scrublands. Some of the mysteries are handled better than others: Ryan is the least likely looking priest ever, which doesn’t so much foreshadow one early twist as give it away. And a police poster of a missing couple gets dropped in early and then forgotten for so long it’s likely you’ll forget it too.
But once we start getting the flashbacks to the priest’s time in town things pick up. With his helpful ways and thoughtful sermons he really does seem too good to be true, while one of his victims was the kind of chump who comes into Sunday mass to drop a fart.
The only local who firmly comes out against the priest is a farmer (Robert Taylor) who turns out to have a secret or two of his own. And when people in the street are having conversations like ‘I thought we agreed to let the past stay in the past’, you know there’s a lot more dirt to be dug up.
As the writer/ director of the Wolf Creek films, series director Greg McLean knows his way around outback crime. He gives Riversend (the sign as you come into town now reads ARSE END, nice work local vandals) an authentically parched vibe without overselling things. Having a couple of bored kids dirt biking around goes a long way towards making the place seem like an actual small town – though Scarsden staying at a crummy hotel called The Black Dog might be pushing it a little.
Arnold’s performance keeps Scarsden on the right side of plausible and keeps the story interesting even when we know more than he does. Heathcote is just as good as the local who’s egging him on to dig deeper … just so long as he doesn’t dig up her past. Also appearing in flashbacks (you can tell it’s the past because her hair is messier) with her cancer mum (Alison Whyte) gives her a different register to play – and a reason for her character to want the truth about the priest to come out.
If you want the pleasures of genre fiction, you have to be willing to go along with the conventions. Scrublands doesn’t break new ground, but if you’re after a solidly entertaining mystery it delivers the goods. There’s a lot going on, the cast is strong, and the priest seems to have only gunned down the town’s scuzziest residents so you know the place was rotten to the core.
Plus there’s a running joke that everywhere Scarsden goes he can’t find working wifi (at one stage he actually uses a pay phone). Will this inability to communicate with the outside world become important once things get serious further down the track?
Guess you’ll have to keep watching.
All four episodes of Scrublands are available on Stan from 16 November.