Of the Australian movies that reach other shores, most show a sense of craft that reaffirms just what thrillers can accomplish. From the past six years alone: Animal Kingdom, The Rover, Snowtown, Mystery Road, The Mule – and more – have all helped refine genre elements into something approaching a total national mastery. Sadly, the newest export, Strangerland, doesn’t enter the same league – or even the leagues below – such great fare, but it does boast a terrific performance or two, and an overbearing sense of mystery and dread that should keep even the most hungry genre hounds happy.
The more dreamlike sequences are when the movie’s at its best, dripping in the kind of hellish, sweat-soaked mood only the best Australian thrillers can produce
Catherine and Matthew Parker (Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes) are the heads of a troubled family. After having moved to a small town in the outback, their children become increasingly restless, fed up with a new home that’s covered in desert dust from sheer idleness. One night, Lily (Maddison Brown) and Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton) decide to up and leave their parents, trekking into the blackness of the desert night. When they fail to return the next day, panic grips the half-emptied household; when local cop Rae (Hugo Weaving) gets on the case, the circumstance becomes even more painful as he unearths what forced the Parkers to move in the first place. Matthew embarks on his own quest to find his children, following leads which don’t necessarily stick to the law; Catherine unravels until her day-to-day reality is blurred with memories of her missing kids.
Put front and centre, and for good reason, is Kidman; it feels as if her career choices of late haven’t exactly been vintage for the actor, and Strangerland feels like a step in the right direction away from the bigger budgeted, blanket-marketed work she’s lately starred in; when she finds herself in a smaller space, her strengths become immediately apparent, and is able to control the room with wonderfully nuanced expressions and a grace all her own – plus the bonus of still looking absolutely terrific at 49. Just look at 2010’s Rabbit Hole, 2004’s Birth and, of course, 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut for proof of this. A return to a mode of acting like this proves to be a glorious showcase for her talents in the film, and while there’s definitely an argument to be made that she overdoes it in places (more to do with screenplay decisions, in fairness), the fire clearly still burns. As for Fiennes, you can almost see the wrath sizzling the air above his skin; here, he’s an exposed nerve ending of masculinity like Matthias Schoenaerts’s’ best work, but sadly there’s little else for him to do. As for Weaving, whenever his weary law enforcer walks into the room, he gives every impression that this man knows what he’s doing – accompanied by a gut feeling that he may be entirely useless all the same. Weaving has largely stayed to homegrown movies like Strangerland of late, and it’s a good fit for him.
For the entirety of the movie, the focus is on the actors; they’re the glue that keeps Strangerland from falling apart whenever the plot developments become overfamiliar. But there’s also plenty of atmosphere in Kim Farrant’s debut feature, even though an identity of her own hasn’t quite formed yet. As such, most promising is Strangerland‘s inherent refusal to answer questions that have been posed on a literal level, instead opting to maximise on theme; the more dreamlike sequences are when the movie’s at its best, dripping in the kind of hellish, sweat-soaked mood only the best Australian thrillers can produce (although still a few psychotic episodes away from Wake in Fright). Add an all-out turn from Kidman, and there’s plenty of reasons to see Strangerland – but it may be worth just waiting for the next Oz classic to come around.
Strangerland is now available on DVD and digital download.