Darkly primal, disquieting and deeply difficult to shake, this true-crime inspired Australian crime-thriller features phenomenal performances by Joel Edgerton and Sean Harris.
October 06, 2022
No emotion or sensation ripples through two or more people in the exact same way, and never will. The Stranger has much to convey, but it expresses that truth with piercing precision. The crime-thriller is the sophomore feature from actor-turned-filmmaker Thomas M Wright — following 2018's stunning Adam Cullen biopic Acute Misfortune, another movie that shook everyone who watched it and proved hard to shake — and it's as deep, disquieting and resonant a dance with intensity as its genre can deliver. To look into Joel Edgerton's (Thirteen Lives) eyes as Mark, an undercover cop with a traumatic but pivotal assignment, is to spy torment and duty colliding. To peer at Sean Harris (Spencer) as the slippery Henry Teague is to see a cold, chilling and complex brand of shiftiness. Sitting behind these two performances in screentime but not impact is Jada Alberts' (Mystery Road) efforts as dedicated, determined and drained detective Kate Rylett — and it may be the portrayal that sums up The Stranger best.
Writing as well as directing, Wright has made a film that is indeed dedicated, determined and draining. At every moment, including in sweeping yet shadowy imagery and an on-edge score, those feelings radiate from the screen as they do from Alberts. Sharing the latter's emotional exhaustion comes with the territory; sharing their sense of purpose does as well. In the quest to capture a man who abducted and murdered a child, Rylett can't escape the case's horrors — and, although the specific details aren't used, there's been no evading the reality driving this feature. The Stranger doesn't depict the crime that sparked Kate Kyriacou's non-fiction book The Sting: The Undercover Operation That Caught Daniel Morcombe's Killer, or any violence. It doesn't use the Queensland schoolboy's name, or have actors portray him or his family. This was always going to be an inherently discomforting and distressing movie, though, but it's also an unwaveringly intelligent and impressive examination of trauma.
There's no other word to describe what Mark and Rylett experience — and, especially as it delves into Mark's psychological state as he juggles his job with being a single father, The Stranger is a film about tolls. What echoes do investigating and seeking justice for an atrocious act leave? Here, the portrait is understandably bleak and anguished. What imprint do such incidences have upon society more broadly? That also falls into the movie's examination. Mark, along with a sizeable group of fellow officers, is trying to get a confession and make an arrest. Back east, Rylett is one of the police who won't and can't let the situation go. Doling out its narrative in a structurally ambitious way, The Stranger doesn't directly address the human need for resolution, or to restore a semblance of order and security after something so heinously shocking, but that's always baked into its frames anyway.
Travelling across the country, Henry first meets a stranger on a bus, getting chatting to Paul (Steve Mouzakis, Clickbait) en route. It's the possibility of work that hooks the ex-con and drifter — perhaps more so knowing that his potential new gig will be highly illicit, and that evading the authorities is implicit. Soon he meets Mark, then seizes the opportunity to reinvent himself in a criminal organisation, not knowing that he's actually palling around with the cops. It's an immense sting, fictionalised but drawn from actuality, with The Stranger also playing as a procedural. The connecting the dots-style moves remain with Rylett, but Wright's decision to hone in on the police operation still means detailing how to catch a killer, astutely laying out the minutiae via action rather than chatting through the bulk of the ins and outs.
When Wright made his initial leap behind the camera after almost two decades on-screen — an acting resume that spans a range of weighty fare, such as Van Diemen's Land, Balibo, Top of the Lake, The Bridge and Sweet Country — he spun a tale of two men connecting, entangling and grappling with hard truths. Acute Misfortune and The Stranger are immensely different movies in a plethora of ways, even if both do find their basis in IRL situations, but there's no missing their common central dynamic. While The Stranger wouldn't be the film it is without its time with Rylett, and with the phenomenal Alberts in that key role, the interplay between Mark and Henry retains its core focus. To be accurate, Mark sits squarest in its spotlight — including surveying the anxiety he feels as a single father tasked with such a case, which plays out in striking domestic and dream sequences — but it isn't a coincidence that Edgerton and Harris are styled to visibly resemble each other.
Also never an accident: that The Stranger's male leads turn in transfixing performances, whether guiding the film's viewers through Mark's waking ordeal and literal nightmares, or showing their cause. This is Edgerton and Harris' third project together in mere years, after The King and The Green Knight — but if it wasn't, it'd be clear why both Wright and Edgerton (who produces and optioned the rights to The Sting to begin with) opted for the pairing. The Stranger sears not just with intensity but tension, so much of which jitters whenever the two men share the frame. A blazing car fire aside, the largely muted colours lensed by cinematographer Sam Chiplin (Penguin Bloom) add to the brooding, primal, dread-filled mood. The nervy soundscape by composer and cellist Oliver Coates (Aftersun, and also a Radiohead collaborator) does the same. But The Stranger's faces and bodies, as haunted and unbalanced as they always are, say — and silently scream — everything.
Wright wants his audience to observe carefully, and to listen. The feature's sound design toys with this very idea; when a drive with Mark and Henry switches its dialogue to surveillance audio, it's such a straightforward choice, and yet its execution is layered, smart and immensely powerful. There's no such thing as passively and easily viewing The Stranger, it tells us, as does describing calming breathing techniques in its opening moments. Engaging with this movie has to be an active and complicated feat because engaging with the darkness it explores always is. Who retells grim chapters of history, and why and how, aren't questions isolated to Australian cinema, especially with true crime a perennially popular genre on screens large and small — and pages and podcasts, and wherever and however else such tales are told — and with The Stranger, they've surfaced again just a year after bubbling up around Justin Kurzel's Nitram. Like that, this equally exceptional and unsettling film makes plain that interrogating events like these is crucial. Here, it's also transformative for those doing the probing, the world they inhabit and those watching.
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