The wildly different terrains of Australia have served as their own characters in films, from the terror of the outback in ‘Wake in Fright,” to the mystical woods of “Picnic at Hanging Rock.” More recent Australian films tend to lean toward the claustrophobic, crime-ridden ‘burbs of “The Snowtown Murders” and “Animal Kingdom,” whereas “Strangerland” tries to split the difference by dumping a dysfunctional family in a remote desert town, leaving them to the whims of their environment and their own questionable natures.
The Parker family has just relocated to Nathgari after a mysterious scandal forced them from their big-city home, and the dusty, run-down bush town simply compounds their tension and unhappiness. Young Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton) wanders the city and its environs late at night when he can’t sleep, a symptom of the restlessness infecting his troubled older sister, Lily (Maddison Brown), and their parents, Catherine (Nicole Kidman) and Matthew (Joseph Fiennes).
Lily is a nightmare barely dressed like a daydream, all legs with puffy lips and sloe eyes, and she bears the brunt of the family’s blame for their relocation like a scarlet letter. Matthew is an uptight pharmacist who can barely disguise his contempt for Lily, and, to a lesser extent, his wife Catherine. “She’s almost as out of control as you,” he hisses at Catherine, who retorts, “Well, you married me.” You can hardly blame either Tommy or Lily for disappearing into the bush fairly early into the movie, leaving the adults to their own miserable devices.
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The plot for “Strangerland” is deeply confused, as if writers Michael Kinirons and Fiona Seres couldn’t quite agree on what the big fat mystery at the center is supposed to be, or even what the characters themselves are about. It could have something to do with Catherine’s hardly sublimated sexual hunger and its parallels to Lily’s. Perhaps it’s Matthew’s barely controlled temper and pride that occasionally explodes into violence, or maybe there’s something a little hinky about how he won’t schtup his wife any more, except for the occasional embarrassing, loveless exchange. Is Lily a victim, or a conniving sex bomb? Everyone is so worked up into a lather that uncovering what drove the Parkers from their old life is a big letdown.
It seems that a movie that takes place in an economically depressed and racially diverse town like Nathgari should do more than hint at the tensions between the Indigenous Australians and interlopers like the Parkers, but the writers shy away at every opportunity. It’s as if there are tidbits left over from previous drafts of the script that addressed these things more directly. For instance, the Parkers’ handyman Burtie (Meyne Wyatt) is sleeping with Lily, as we learn from a rather florid diary entry that consists of a shirtless snap of Burtie with the text “MY BLACK PRINCE” at the bottom of the page. Hugo Weaving has a thankless role as the officer investigating Lily’s disappearance; he’s involved with Burtie’s sister, who accuses him of taking the Parkers’ side because they’re white. There’s even mention of the Rainbow Serpent myth, which seems like it’s going to become a theme when we see Lily’s paramour has a large snake tattooed around his arm and up his neck, but that’s dropped just as quickly. Various woo woo tidbits are thrown in — Burtie can just sense that Lily went into the bush or something! It’s probably just as well that the movie didn’t get much deeper than that, lest it veer into more overt fetishization.
Kidman does her best “dingo ate my baby” freak out, complete with dusty naked wandering through the middle of town, and Brown is compulsively watchable. Fiennes seems completely out of place, even more than he was in “American Horror Story” as a sexy priest. Director Kim Farrant makes good use of the Australian landscape and her stars, but after a few sunrises and sunsets, it all begins to blur together. The opening and closing voiceover from the pages of Lily’s teen diary also doesn’t do the movie any favors. “Strangerland” starts off promisingly enough, but it just can’t decide where it wants to go, or even how to get there. [C-]