Editor’s Notes: Strangerland opens in limited release today, July 10th.
On the surface, the Parkers seem like an unremarkable family, spending their days at work and school, trying to stay cool in the stifling heat of an Australian summer. Just under that calm surface, however, is a family in crisis, in no small part thanks to the boredom brought on by their recent move to the tiny town of Nathgari. Matthew Parker (Joseph Fiennes) insists that his family’s move was necessary, and while his wife Catherine (Nicole Kidman) tries to make the best of it, their young son Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton) and 15-year-old daughter Lily (Maddison Brown) are miserable. Lily takes the brunt of the blame, though no one is willing to speak of her past out loud, not until she and Tommy go missing, presumed lost in the sweltering Outback.
Boasting a terrific score by Keefus Ciancia and gorgeous cinematography of the Australian wilderness courtesy P.J. Dillon.
In Strangerland (2015), the latest from director Kim Farrant, secrets are held close to the chest, and the truth is as hard to find as the two lost children. Boasting a terrific score by Keefus Ciancia and gorgeous cinematography of the Australian wilderness courtesy P.J. Dillon, Strangerland is, just like the Parkers, engaging and attractive in appearance. Below that pleasant exterior, however, a complicated and ill-defined rot has set in, manifesting in a free-floating sense of malaise, probably psychosexual in nature, though we’re never given enough information to truly know for sure.
When local detective David Rae (Hugo Weaving) is finally called in by Catherine, it’s revealed that Lily, back in their hometown of Coonaberra, had been sleeping with one of her teachers; even after the family fled to Nathgari, she was enjoying what could politely be called a robust sexual life. Her father alternates between being merely uncomfortable and incensed by her behavior, while her mother, a sexual free spirit herself, has a more complicated relationship with her daughter. When Lily and Tommy disappear, secrets and lies and long-repressed emotions bubble, uncontrolled, to the surface.
Strangerland is too much a straightforward mystery to get away with it. After a while, Strangerland’s unrelenting ambiguity feels like a deliberate prank.
Kidman gives a bold and compelling performance as the troubled, determined Catherine. It’s the kind of turn that is tailor-made to silence her increasingly vocal critics, though it probably won’t silence them long, thanks to Strangerland’s many missteps. It’s a mystery with a vague, half-realized psychosexual component at its core, and on one level, the fact that the film has no intention of solving any of its mysteries is of very little consequence; Strangerland is largely a character study, after all. Yet somewhere along the line, Strangerland decided that, to be introspective, all it had to do was ask questions, then simply fail to answer them. While this might be a solid plan in some genres, Strangerland is too much a straightforward mystery to get away with it. After a while, Strangerland’s unrelenting ambiguity feels like a deliberate prank.
The strong sexual undercurrent in Strangerland is presented with no finesse whatsoever, primarily in its unkind comparisons of sex with unnatural, animal behaviors. In the first act of the film, this manifests as a whole heap of snake symbolism, including a suspiciously smudged snake tattoo adorning the arm of the bog-standard teenaged dirtbag that Lily sets her eyes on. All of these serpents, whether literal or figurative, disappear around the midpoint of the film without explanation, making it seem as though the movie has forgotten what it was talking about.
And it very well may have. Somewhere in the middle of all the red herrings and bad teenage poetry, the film gave away its biggest secret: that the narrative requires the children stay missing until whatever indefinable thing that is going on with the parents gets resolved, or at least somewhat explained, and no amount of searching or investigating matters, because the film is just stalling for time. Each scene feels like a hastily carved chunk of plot stacked on top of the last plot chunk as the filmmakers cross their fingers and hope that the end result will remain standing, even if it’s ugly and rickety and mostly useless. As lovely as it is to look at and as strong a performance as Kidman gives, Strangerland is a pointless exercise, giving us precisely zero reasons to care about anyone or anything in the film.
As lovely as it is to look at and as strong a performance as Kidman gives, Strangerland is a pointless exercise, giving us precisely zero reasons to care about anyone or anything in the film.