Hard to know if there are better Australian films released or to be released this year, distribution and exhibition being what it is, but I doubt that there will be anything better, even near as good, as Thomas M. Wright’s The Stranger. It’s a film so full of constant surprise, so full of foreboding and mystery. It also has a moment to moment exactitude and authenticity unlike almost anything else made here. I’m hardly alone. There is already plenty of critical enthusiasm for the film both local, following screenings at MIFF, and from the international trade press.
Where does it settle. Your mind goes to Melville for its policier elements and to Antonioni for its refusal to be explicatory. These are not the usual sources for Oz film-makers so maybe I’m just guessing, letting my imagination give Wright credit for a deep cinephilic sensibility that may or may not be there. It is after all applied to what is ultimately a very elaborate police procedural, something in the manner of those European crime shows that SBS shows where it takes any number of hour long episodes before the parts finally knit together.
For starters consider the two story lines – Henry Teague (Brit actor Sean Harris) is seemingly inadvertently given a job with hints of it being outside the law. “I don’t do violence” is his only qualifier. He’s brought in at the bottom of a ring of drug dealers and early on we learn that his immediate boss Mark Frame (Joel Edgerton) is an undercover cop. We are led to believe that the story arc is to be about the bringing down of the drug ring. Parallel with this, two police (one of them played by Jada Alberts, no idea about the other) are pouring over a kidnapping and murder case involving the disappearance of a child.
There are two separate narratives operating and what seemed to be the activities of an oafish and threatening drug syndicate is in fact an elaborate police operation designed to entrap. Cops and crooks all speak the same language. All are ineffably vulgar, badly dressed and foul-mouthed. They seem to threaten violence constantly. The actors relish the opportunity and I’m sure that Wright, primarily an actor himself until his two recent features, would have encouraged them. You might even be reminded of Joseph Losey’s The Criminal, another exercise which examines a criminal milieu and allows its actors to relish their parts.
Except in The Stranger there is no violence on the screen at all. Wright’s script, adapting a novel based on a real-life incident talks in whispers, deflections, apologies. Henry constantly says “Sorry, mate” and promises to do better next time
Accompanying this, apart from some drone shots of a mysterious location, is a mise-en-scene devoted to close-ups, blackness, angles that keep characters almost hidden. It’s a piece of bravura film-making and noteworthy here especially for its singularity in a national cinema too prone to the safe and straightforward methods of telling a story.
The Stranger is going to have some theatrical screenings in October before it heads off to Netflix. See it in a picture theatre to get the best effect of its darkness and its complex sense of mystery and dread.