When a good priest goes bad: Scrublands is compelling rural noir

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Scrublands, Stan

Based on former journalist Chris Hammer’s debut novel, the four-part crime mystery Scrublands sits squarely in the genre of Australian rural noir. With its vast landscapes and tightly enclosed interiors, it conjures a palpable sense of both the vast space and the social claustrophobia of life in a small country town where everyone knows – or thinks they know – everything about you.

This being a mystery, everything is not really known at all, either by the locals of Riversend or by the viewers (unless they’ve read the book, of course, and many people have). Lifting the lid on the secrets that led Catholic priest Father Byron Swift (Jay Ryan) to kill five parishioners before being fatally shot by local cop Robbie Haus-Jones (Adam Zwar) becomes the job of an outsider.

Jay Ryan stars as the gun-toting Father Byron Swift in Scrublands.Credit: Stan

Martin Scarsden (Luke Arnold, who played Michael Hutchence in INXS: Never Tear Us Apart) is the blow-in. He’s an investigative journalist with The Sydney Morning Herald who’s suffering PTSD after losing a friend on assignment, and he’s been sent to the town to do a puff piece a year after the tragedy, as a way of easing back into things.

But you can’t keep a good snoop down, even when he’s feeling low, and before long Scarsden has become convinced there’s a lot more to the story than the tale of a paedophile priest going rogue after being outed.

By turns he’s encouraged and frustrated in his efforts by Mandy Bond (Bella Heathcote), a single mum and owner of the only bookstore in town. She knows there’s another explanation – after all, the dead priest did so much good he can’t have been all bad – but there are some trees she’d rather Scarsden, with whom there is clearly a mutual attraction, doesn’t go barking up.

Investigative journalist Martin Scarsden (Luke Arnold) and police constable Robbie Haus-Jones (Adam Zwar) in Scrublands. Credit: Stan

Written by Felicity Packard and directed by Greg McLean (screen veterans both, the pair last collaborated on the Wolf Creek series for Stan), Scrublands shimmers with a kind of golden glow. It doesn’t feel quite as oppressively hot and parched as The Dry, perhaps, but it does create the sense of a town that could go up in flames at any moment, as much from its internal tensions as any external factors.

Produced by Easy Tiger, which presumably hopes to find in Hammer’s books (there are three Scarsden novels to date) a franchise to rival its Jack Irish series, the show was shot in and around Maldon and Castlemaine in the goldfields region of Victoria (the book was set in the Riverina district of NSW). The town and landscapes are characters as much as the supporting cast, which includes Robert Taylor as the local patriarch and Alison Whyte as Mandy’s dying mother.

Scrublands is an engaging, well-made piece of work that doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel. But in one respect at least, it’s truly notable: it’s a co-production between Stan and Nine, with a heroic lead character who works for the SMH.

All three are properties of parent company Nine Entertainment (which owns The Age too). In terms of cross-platform synergies, it feels like a genuinely significant moment.

Contact the author at [email protected], follow him on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on Twitter @karlkwin, and read more of his work here.

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