Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Thomas M Wright
Stars: Joel Edgerton, Sean Harris, Jada Alberts, Steve Mouzakis, Ewen Leslie, Alan Dukes, Matthew Sunderland, Fletcher Humphrys, Peta Shannon, Melanie Munt, Stephen Leeder, Simon Elrahi.
Australian filmmakers seem to be fascinated with true crime stories – films like Snowtown, Chopper, Nitram and tv series Underbelly, etc, have all explored violence and the psychology of criminals. Based on the true story of the largest undercover police operation in Australia’s history, The Stranger is an extremely bleak and disturbing drama that is also an unusual police procedural. This is the sophomore feature from director Thomas M Wright, and as he did with Acute Misfortune, his 2018 biopic of doomed artist Adam Cullen, he employs an impressionistic approach to the material that will alienate many in the audience.
The Stranger is based on Kate Kyriacous book The Sting: The Undercover Operation That Caught Daniel Morcombe’s Killer, which detailed the massive and elaborate year-long undercover operation designed to catch a killer who was suspected of abducting and murdering a thirteen-year-old boy several years earlier. The body has never been found, but the case has never been closed. Star Joel Edgerton read the book and was largely responsible for bringing it to Wright’s attention and bringing the film to the screen.
When the film opens, ex-con and loner Henry Teague (played by Sean Harris) meets a man named Paul (Steve Mouzakis) on a bus. During the trip Paul tells him where he can find some work, and Henry is slowly drawn into an underground world of criminals. He is introduced to Mark (Edgerton) who takes him under his wing and introduces him to other contacts in the underground. Henry begins to work with Mark on small jobs and errands that pay good money, and he begins to think of a new life ahead. Henry thinks that he is being groomed to work as part of a gang running arms, but unknown to him everyone he meets is an undercover police officer who are working to gain his trust and elicit a confession from him. Mark is seemingly the only friend that Henry has, and the issue of trust plays a major role in the drama that follows as he tries to build a relationship with him.
The Stranger explores the complex nature of the uneasy relationship between Mark and Henry, one a remorseless killer the other a decent cop, but both living a lie. Mark also juggles the demands of his job with those of being a single father raising his young son and trying to cope with the emotional and psychological toll of undercover work. He shows the stress of this duality sometimes in his dealing with his son.
There is a rawness to the film, which is permeated with a creeping sense of unease and dread. It has a dark and brooding tone largely due to the moody cinematography from Sam Chiplin (Penguin Bloom, etc). Much of the film’s action takes place at night which adds another layer of darkness to the material. Wright’s visuals are deliberately bleak yet stylish. Simon Njo’s disjointed editing technique is jarring with its abrupt cuts, but this further heightens the unsetting mood. Oliver Coate’s brooding music score and the sound design add to the oppressive and claustrophobic feel of the material.
Dialogue is sparse and at times much of what is said is almost inaudible. The pacing is a little slow at times, and the timeline of the investigation is also a little murky, which will also frustrate some audiences.
Edgerton and Harris previously appeared in David Michod’s period drama The King, and they bring a certain rapport to their roles. They both inhabit their gruff characters with intense and brooding performances. Edgerton delivers a nicely nuanced and tightly wound performance here, while Harris exudes a sweaty and uncomfortable quality to his performance as Henry, a creepy and unlikeable character. Also registering strongly is Jada Alberts (Mystery Road, etc) who plays Detective Rylett, who is convinced of Henry’s guilt and is the driving force behind the operation, debut has to deal with some pushback from her skeptical superiors.
The Stranger is a dark, intense and bleak film; it certainly not an enjoyable or mainstream film and will not appeal to everybody. However, there will plenty out there who will appreciate it for its visual styles and aesthetics.