Australian films have an excellent track record on the subject of abductions, most notably Lantana, Ray Lawrence’s verdant nightmarish psychological drama, whilst Kim Farrant’s Strangerland portrayed the Australian outback as a place as dangerous and inhospitable as Mars with red dust infiltrating almost every scene. Now we have Thomas M. Wright’s The Stranger, which also revolves around the tale – loosely based on a true story – of a missing person, a boy kidnapped eight years prior and presumed dead, and the hunt for his kidnapper/killer.
Rather than go for lush night-time greens orextra-terrestrial reds, Miller’s film is a palette of greys, from the yellowy light of concrete car parks to the deeper tones of swirlingclouds and impending storms. Cinematographer Sam Chiplin could have added a little more to this colour scheme. While there are glimpses of fiery red and vistas of green forest, the overall tone is positively funereal. Cleaving the murk are two outstanding central performances. Sean Harris is Henry, a loner with a violent past who is befriended during an overnight bus journey by Paul (Steve Mouzakis) and offered some work. Henry agrees, but stipulates a ‘no violence’ clause in his verbal contract. Paul passes Henry on to Mark (Joel Edgerton) and becomes his right-hand man, picking up consignments and meeting people to seal deals and share intel.
Yet none of the men are who they purport to be. Henry has an alias – and a terrifying crime record to boot – while Mark and his cohorts are actually undercover cops involved in a huge sting in order to bring in the man who took and probably murdered a child. Adding to the tension is the fact that Mark has a young boy of his own. His fear and paranoia grow, the more embroiled with Henry he becomes. And Wright often shifts the action from Henry’s story to Mark’s (and consequently his son’s).
This cat-and-mouse game between perp and cop is a fairly common trope, as is the question of how far a cop is willing to go in order to make an arrest. And for good reason – it can make for gripping viewing. Wright maintains a level of tension without ever overdoing things and in this he is aided by Harris and Edgerton, who are intensely believable, and in the script, which allows a shadow of doubt to be cast over Henry’s guilt. Are the cops – and also the audience – too ready to accuse Henry before any solid evidence has been uncovered? There are some other nice touches, such as Henry’s wife. She is never seen and again the viewer begins to wonder: does she even exist? And if so, is she still alive? There are also the tensions within the police force as detectives go up against their bosses at the same time that Mark and co are out in the field.
Thomas M. Wright has made an intelligent and sombre film that delves into the murky depths of violence and depicts the repercussions that contact with evil can have, the effects rippling out and touching even those who are completely oblivious to its existence.