FOR THOSE WHO HAVE YET TO SEE THE STRANGER, THIS IS A NON-SPOILER REVIEW.
True crime is a dime a dozen nowadays… it feels as if we are getting a new documentary, film, or limited series ripped straight from the headlines, every week. Our culture’s obsession with the genre runs deep. We are constantly searching for the answer to why there is so much evil in this world… And for the comfort, that through the help of good samaritans coming together, that evil can be locked away. As someone who, admittedly, cannot get enough True Crime and falls asleep to Dateline… I’m always on the lookout for a project in this genre, that does something completely new, that we haven’t seen before.
And Thomas Wright’s The Stranger definitely starts off in a way, that made me feel like it was going to do just that. I am aware I’m going to be in the minority on this, as the movie received rave reviews from its premiere at Cannes… But, somewhere along the line, as this film trudges along it, unfortunately, began to fall flat for me.
WHAT IS THE STRANGER ALL ABOUT?
The film follows a friendship formed between two strangers. For Henry Teague, worn down by a lifetime of physical labor, this is a dream come true. His new friend Mark becomes his savior and ally. However, neither is who they appear to be, each carries secrets that threaten to ruin them and in the background, one of the nation’s largest police operations is closing in.
I’m not going to go into detail about the real-life case of Daniel Morcombe, whose name has been changed in the film… because I believe one of the compelling aspects of The Stranger, is the unknown. But, I did find myself doing research into the case afterward and finding myself far more captivated by the facts of the case, than what ended up on the screen here.
BE PREPARED TO BE DISORIENTED…
What I really appreciated about the beginning of this movie, was how disoriented I felt. From the opening narration about breathing out darkness to flashes of images of police investigating some sort of crime scene to the introduction of our character Henry on a bus, meeting an inquisitive man named Paul… I had no idea what was going on, but I was extremely intrigued right from the outset. And this continued as we are introduced to more characters without much of any introduction, and thrown into this seedy criminal underworld, completely left in the dark…just like the bewildered Henry. Our writer/director proceeds to string his audience along for the first act, blindly following him with only the knowledge that there’s more to this situation than meets the eye.
A PREMATURE REVEAL?
But, then Wright decides to divulge the other side of the story about 25 minutes in. This, of course, needed to happen at some point in the film. But, I feel like it happened far too soon. If we had gotten closer to these two characters and seen their budding friendship blossom without this knowledge, the impact of the reveal later on in the film would have been so much greater. Because as it stands, once Wright removes the wool from the audience’s eyes… The movie begins to feel much more like a generic undercover police procedural. Albeit, an extremely well-made and acted one.
HOW IS THE FILMMAKING?
Speaking of which, Thomas Wright knows how to deliver on the atmosphere. The tone of the film is constantly unsettling and filled with mounting dread. The director is also able to respectfully capture the depravity of the crime, without ever explicitly showing anything. It’s a testament to his filmmaking abilities that I felt so very disturbed while watching The Stranger, without a single drop of blood being spilled on screen.
AND THE CAST?
Joel Edgerton is quietly devastating in the co-lead role, as Mark. The mental turmoil he goes through as this friendship develops is shown through painful stares into the camera. I just wish we had gotten to know this character more. As the only time, we really see Mark for who he is… It is when he is on screen with his son. Sean Harris is equally as great as Henry, fully embracing his creepy, beady-eyed persona… but, we also are kept at arm’s length from this character. Though one of the main points of the movie is the fact that these two are keeping their cards close to their chest, it would have helped if we could have emotionally connected with them more, once the reveal had been set into motion.
DOES THE STRANGER ACCOMPLISH WHAT IT SET OUT TO DO?
Sadly, I think The Stranger really falters in what it was trying to accomplish. It doesn’t work in its approach at the beginning because of its premature reveal. And then it also fails to enlighten the audience on the crime at the forefront… As Wright becomes much more concerned with the psychological toll of going undercover and being in the presence of such evil. Which is fascinating and in my opinion, the most effective aspect of the movie… But, I think Wright loses sight of the end goal in the process of exploring that narrative.
Let’s be clear though, by no means is The Stranger a bad film. In fact, it is a sophisticated alternative to the norm. However, I struggled through its extremely slow burn, because I never fully connected with these two characters, their relationship, or to the crime, they were involved in. It’s a case of being beautifully and intricately made, yet feeling altogether hollow.