A A creeping sense of dread permeates writer/director Thomas M Wright’s second feature, which burst into 2018’s Acute Misfortune, which was not just a great biopic (by artist Adam Cullen), but the one of the best Australian films of the decade. The Stranger has a texture reminiscent of fellow Aussie Justin Kurzel’s films, particularly Snowtown and Nitram, with scaled-down color schemes, stylized – but never flashy – compositions and degraded in a slightly off-kilter fashion, as if the characters have smudged the surface of the film, the contaminant from inside.
Our narrative path in this sophisticated, meditative image goes through Henry (Sean Harris), an ex-con and drifter who meets a stranger, Paul (Steve Mouzakis), on a bus; cinematographer Sam Chiplin creates a surreal theatricality by blackening the space around them. Paul tells Henry he knows where he can find work – not the legal type – and soon Henry has entered the network of Mark (Joel Edgerton), an undercover cop posing as a mid-level mobster. The movie spends a lot of time with Mark and Henry, and you’re not sure what either is capable of.
The Stranger is a ‘busting the case’ tale, taking us on a mission to identify the kidnapper and murderer of a boy who disappeared years ago. A full picture of the operation is gradually emerging; for a long time, it is not known exactly who the suspect is, or even the nature of the case. Wright drew on the real-life investigation to track down the man who murdered 13-year-old Daniel Morcombe, whose family has come out against the film. However, Morcombe is not named and neither the boy nor the crime is depicted. If viewers entered the cold, they are unlikely to connect the film to real events.
Among its unconventional elements is the use of Edgerton’s character as a way to examine trauma, which is more often portrayed as being experienced by victims, and sometimes their communities, but rarely cops. The Stranger is different: Mark’s angst over his work seems terrifyingly real, creating a gripping psychological energy that pervades everything. It’s hard to pull off a good dream sequence, but Wright – who has a great knack for making characters feel locked inside – directs more than one, blurring the inner world with the outside and taking us deeper into Mark’s mind.
Performance is crucial. Edgerton is at his best with a brooding, brooding performance, exploring the dark ramifications of undercover work in a way that feels fresh and intensely engrossing. He’s one of those famous actors who seems to have no problem disappearing into unglamorous personas. her role choices, in fact, seem partly designed to avoid glamor altogether. Harris, meanwhile, is almost too well, almost too convincing like Henry, whom you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley.
Wright’s stylistic flourishes use cinematic expression without detracting from the reality of the image. White lines in the middle of a road provide visual rhythm in a scene; in another, after Henry and Mark meet, the camera remains in the car transporting them, but switches from day to night, condensing time. Behind the back shots, removing the face as a point of reference, are carefully used. The Outsider eschews both careful explanation and artificial ambiguity, when narrative pieces intertwine to confuse audiences.
Speaking purely of genre detective stories, there’s a scene, about 30 minutes before the end (no spoilers) that I’ve never seen before: definitely not on this level, with everything happening at the same time time, and with so much weight behind it all. The plot event in question registers dramatically, but there’s a vibe, a tone, an intangible energy that takes it elsewhere, swelling the joints of the film and shaking the bones of the characters and the audience. At this point, it’s abundantly clear that The Stranger has slipped, assiduously, into brilliance; to call this an awe-inspiring, unconventional crime drama is to say it very lightly.
The Stranger is currently screening as part of the 2022 Melbourne International Film Festival. It will hit theaters in Australia in October 2022, before getting a worldwide release on Netflix that month.