Australia’s Latest Thriller “The Stranger” Pulses With Depravity
Posted on 24th February 2023 at 00:13
By Sebastian Grace
Blank passports. “Shifting gear.” An undercover investigation. All hallmarks of your everyday crime thriller. But Thomas Wright’s “The Stranger” is so much more than that. Not for the faint of heart, the film snaps throughout, a vicious and elegantly somber tour de force.
“The Stranger” opens with brooding background noise, and one sees a large column of a mountain, a prominent dark peak fizzing with energy that goes on to fill every transition. Dense unending forest flashes below as Joel Edgerton’s edgy, subtle Australian tones encourage you to dispel the black air of anxiety with a deep breath. A Headspace sleep cast on steroids.
Breath becomes a central motif throughout. Sean Harris’ villain gasps on an inhaler (“I can’t breathe, mate”), and the impending sense of doom evokes a noose tightening around the action, the viewer increasingly breathless and wide-eyed. Very few films I have seen use the color black so effectively: to create fear, emphasize darkness and throttle the plot. Navies, browns and beige too. The colors of a criminal, suburban, empty Australia, a place of so little soul that the film captures with so much class through a sepia lens, neutral tones accentuating a visceral plot. The mise en scene focuses on each character’s visage and voice, rarely full body shots or extensive, fast-paced movements. The action, slow, rigid and heavy, has you on the edge of your seat, desperately hoping for a second when you can avert your eyes and take a breath.
Both Wright’s character’s would be at home in Homer’s tradition of the Cimmerians, a people who in his fictional account lived in perpetual mist and darkness, deprived of sunlight, close to the entrance of Hades and the land of the dead. Joel Edgerton plays an all-encompassing broken cop, “Mark,” who becomes close with a violent criminal, “Henry,” played by Sean Harris, a man who claims, “We’ve all got a history mate. All got a past.” (Not as bad as his, let me tell you) It’s 26 minutes before it is confirmed that Harris’ character is a child murderer the authorities have failed to convict, but you know the game’s afoot from the beginning. The two are intertwined, gaunt looks, raggedy long hair and unkempt beards not excluded.
Harris plays the man we most fear encountering on our way home in the dark, an unnerving, trembling wrong-un captured in an almost lifeless but magisterial performance. Henry is ludicrously terrifying, and as the net metaphorically tightens, he grows into his part, at one point pretending to fire an empty gun while he’s adorned in new clothes straight from the Sopranos memorabilia wardrobe. In one world-arresting scene, Henry shakes in pretend convulsions, spluttering an impression of the members of a bizarre church “back home,” before rapidly switching into visceral distaste for the pastors and their “fucking lying,” the anger biting and utterly compelling. “I’m the black sheep of the family mate,” he says, “They’re ashamed of me. They can’t fucking stand me,” and you can well believe it. Very few, if anyone, would blame them.
Edgerton’s character is one you imagine while enthralled in the pages of Charles Bowden’s gritty, haunted memoir “Blood Orchids: An Unnatural History of America.” In the book’s opening foray, Bowden describes his life as a reporter consumed by his crime beat and gradually coming to terms with the blurry distinction between criminals and the rest of humanity: “I do not want to leave my work at the office. I do not want to leave my work at all. I have entered a world that is black, sordid, vicious. And actual. I do not care what price I have to pay to be in this world.” This theme of trauma as lived experience is the fierce engine of “The Stranger.” As Luke Buckmaster writes in his Guardian review, “Mark’s anguish over his work feels terribly real, and this creates a captivating psychological energy that washes over everything.” He said, “Edgerton is at his best with a brooding, gloomy performance, exploring the dark ramifications of undercover work in a way that feels fresh and intensely captivating.” There is no glamorizing of this work. There is only a devastating grimness.
“The Stranger” purports to be based on a true story and evokes the real-life 2003 case of murdered 13-year-old Daniel Morcombe without detail. It was born from Kate Kyriacou’s nonfiction account “The Sting: The Undercover Operation That Caught Daniel Morcombe’s Killer” and has caused controversy. Morcombe’s family have strongly criticized the film and declined an opportunity to be involved in its production. “Its appalling storyline ignores our family’s pain… In a twisted way, it also provides oxygen to a sadistic beast by notarising his evil acts. Individuals who make money from a heinous crime are parasites,” they said. The Queensland schoolboy’s father has called for Australians to boycott the film. It has, however, been popular, reaching Netflix’s global top 10 rankings in January 2023 despite very little fanfare or promotion.
Part of Wright’s power with “The Stranger” is the mesh of simplicity and audacity: the excessive brutality and precision speed of the murder, the blatant duality of the undercover investigation and the cyclical nature of the plot, and Henry’s story, culminating when he is finally apprehended on the spot where he disposed of the boy, and you are left in no doubt that the almost pitiful king of this sunless, murky world is guilty as sin.
Edgerton has described the film as “an exercise in elongated tension,” and boy, is he right. “The Stranger” is a work that initially withholds much of its complete wickedness before revealing itself to the viewer in a macabre yet mesmerizing fashion. It is not a plot of labyrinthine intricacy but a masterpiece of dread and suspense. It is electrifying, blood-tingling, and a mighty impressive crime drama.
“The Stranger” (2022)
8/10. Directed by Thomas M. Wright. Starring Joel Edgerton and Sean Harris.
Available to watch on Netflix. ($6.99/ month)
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