Film Review – Strangerland
Life is a mystery. So the song goes. A statement so astute might as well have been the opening words to Kim Farrant‘s Strangerland. Instead, a wispy female voice softly speaks poetry, just as sparse and intended to be profound as that opening statement. This moody, atmospheric mystery is in many ways an extension of that brevity and search for deeper meaning at once. Haunting images of the stark Australian landscape never linger, creating an impression that carries over to the moments of acting.
Set in a dusty Australian town, seemingly tucked away in the middle of nowhere, a family has just moved, escaping a mysterious past. The parents, Catherine (Nicole Kidman) and Mathew (Joseph Fiennes) Parker suffer quiet marital issues that result in their sleeping in separate bedrooms, while their children Lily (Maddison Brown) and Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton) occupy themselves with a search for local acceptance. Lily is quickly established as a Lolita archetype of a character, young, attractive and seemingly seeking sexual interaction from anyone who’ll offer. Her sexual deviance is driving most of the mystery surrounding not just the nature of the story, but the characters and their actions.
Unlike mysteries that concern themselves with plot and the question of what’s going to happen next, Strangerland focuses on the mystery of motivation. When the movie begins, character’s actions are presented without clear motivation, creating a sense of frustration from their behavior. As the story progresses motivation is only slightly revealed after the fact, giving way to aha-moments of slight understanding. When Lily and Tommy then go missing in the middle of the night, the audience is intended to be just as lost as the characters, but without the knowledge of motivation I felt less lost and more agitated, which became a distraction from the story itself.
Kidman gives a solid performance as a mother losing her grip on reality, while Fiennes is particularly cold and does a great job of playing a character that never allows us to get comfortable enough to judge him fully. In a supporting role Hugo Weaving plays Detective David Rae, the small town sheriff charged with solving the mystery of the children’s disappearance. The movies succeeds in creating an unsettling story that never fully presents answers to questions it raises, however, it seems to also posit that those questions only matter if the answer is penance through guilt. The characters are weighed down by their mysterious pasts, but without a knowledge of that past we’re ultimately left with a series of bizarre behavioral moments that seem to pose as slivers of a character study.
Most of the movie is spent searching for the missing children, but little about the story seems intent on solving their disappearance. With an ambiguous approach to the resolution coupled with the surprising leisurely pace, the impact the ending wants to deliver seems to come off as less an impression of something profound and more a quick solution to an unknown problem. That isn’t to say it’s not interesting or has something to say, rather it seems unsure how it wants to say whatever it is it needs to express.
As mysteries go, Strangerland knows how to set up the need for anticipation of resolution but when the dust of the outback settles, it feels unsure how to gel all its separate elements into a focused story that creates entertainment in its delivery of mystery as well as trying to be interesting. It’s all good and fine to do something different, but in the end whatever that is needs to be entertaining, the audience should want to see what happens next because they’re thrilled by it, not just because the story assumes that’s what they should do all on their own.