If Australian cinema has one constant, it’s that our filmmakers make some of the bleakest, yet horrifyingly engaging crime movies. Andrew Dominik’s Chopper uniquely gave us insight into the deranged mind of a gangland criminal, while Justin Kurzel has tapped into our dark history twice with the body-in-the-barrel murders being the foundation for Snowtown, and more recently, dramatizing the events leading up to Australia’s worst mass shooting with Nitram.
Now, writer and director Thomas M. Wright, in his second feature film, uses a horrific true crime as the blueprint to show the relationship formed between an undercover cop and a mysterious drifter that led to the sting and arrest of one of Australia’s most wanted criminals.
While it is never specifically stated, or any of the real names of people involved used, The Stranger is inspired by the awful abduction, and later, devastating murder of Queensland teenager, Daniel Morcombe, in 2003. However, rather than focusing his film on the truly terrible events that occurred, Wright transcends deep into the darker elements of humanity as we follow the story of Henry Teague (Sean Harris, Mission: Impossible – Fallout).
Teague (based on real life murderer, Brett Peter Cowan) is fleeing Queensland on a bus headed for Western Australia. Over the course of the elongated trip, Teague befriends a fellow passenger who puts forward the opportunity for work before Teague, who desperately agrees. The work leads him to a meeting with Mark (Joel Edgerton, The Gift), a right-hand man to one of Western Australia’s predominant crime bosses.
The jobs initially are simple for Teague and Mark – roughing up a bookie here and there, collecting guns and drugs – simple tasks that pay well. On their car rides between jobs, the emotionally elusive Teague slowly begins to open up to the straightforward questioning of Mark, something that leads to the slow unravelling as Teague begins to show his true, darker personality. However, at the end of the day, Mark’s work doesn’t end, as he is an undercover police officer and the whole crime organisation that he works for is a sting set up by the federal police to catch Teague, a man who they believe is responsible for the abduction of a teenage boy back in Queensland.
Wright’s vision for this story is a hauntingly intimate dissection of an incredibly troubled man. A man who is driven by primitive and inhuman desires, mentally and physically. The Stranger is not an easy movie to watch. Outside of its affiliation with the horrific true crime it’s based on, this is a confronting film that manages to crawl under your skin without showing any violence, and that’s what makes The Stranger so fascinating. Wright never shies away from the dark thematic elements of the story, rather he insists on patiently letting the darkness creep in and lets the unavoidable unsettling nature of the story and characters completely consume the screen. There are moments of psychological tension and trauma, specifically for Mark who is tormented by the job he has in front of him (both having to befriend a potential killer and baiting him along enough to get a confession), that feel like they would slide perfectly into a horror film.
One of The Stranger’s biggest strengths is the dual narrative that is forcibly inviting the audience into the deluded mind of an awful human, but also the traumatic effect it took on those working to bring him to justice. While the scenes between Teague and Mark are truly engaging cinema, it’s the moments of Mark breaking down or fellow undercover officers in moments of pure anxiety about the case that really drives home the point that one small slip up, and this criminal walks free, adding a heart-wrenching extra layer of tension on top of a powder keg that’s primed to blow at any moment.
It’s also Wright’s incredibly sharp visual style that lends to the brooding, bleak atmosphere. The Stranger is as dark in colour, as it is in tone. Beautiful scenery shots that would be considered wonderful with a high contrast play instead as hellscapes in which it feels there is no escape. Wright’s use of tight camerawork around Teague and Mark create a claustrophobic feel, not just for the audience, but as each character closes in on each other, the walls close in around them too. It’s odd to go on about how bleak it is, but then compliment how stunning it does look in the same sentence, but it’s the only way to describe it. It’s a beautiful looking bleakness that accentuates the film’s tone.
The screenplay is minimal, the dialogue is often moans and grunts, mumbling and silence, that fills the atmosphere with unease. But the subtlety of the dialogue allows phenomenal performances from Harris and Edgerton to shine, both giving career-defining moments throughout.
Harris is nightmare material. Often, you feel like you can’t make eye contact with him on screen, because his unsettling demeanour speaks more volume than any words he says. And then, when he does say some incredibly uncomfortable things, it’s delivered by Harris with the restraint of a despicable human being that it adds to the unstable nature of Teague, and the relationship he has with Mark.
Mark, of who is brought to life impeccably by Edgerton, who has proven himself in darker roles prior to this film (see Gordie in The Gift). This project was also one, stated by Wright himself in an introduction before the screening, that was initially brought to him by Edgerton, and his passion towards this project and creating a truly memorable, yet challenging cinematic experience.
The Stranger is a bleak and dark look into how an abhorrent killer was brought to justice, told in a truly fascinating and challenging way. The tone and atmosphere of Wright’s film has to be commended for it’s engaging immersion and ability to horrify the audience without resorting to cheap violence and disrespect to the true crime case it’s based on. Sean Harris will have the hairs on your neck standing from the moment you see him as Teague, and your heart will break for Joel Edgerton as Mark, as he battles demons, internally and externally, in this crime thriller that is absolutely worth your time.
The Stranger is playing in Australian cinemas from October 6, thanks to Transmission Films. It will then be streaming on Netflix from October 19.
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