“The things inside your head, they’re only as real as you want them to be. If you want, you can just decide they’re not real.” Early on in “The Strange Ones,” Nick (Alex Pettyfer) tells this to his younger travel buddy Sam (James Freedson-Jackson), before seemingly making a coffee mug disappear. On its surface, the film is about two brothers heading out on a camping trip, but it quickly becomes apparent that not everything is as it seems, from the pair’s names to their endgame (to the existence of their coffee mugs). The film’s co-directors, Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein, may be relatively new to audiences (“The Strange Ones” is their feature-length debut; in fact, it’s an expansion upon their own 2011 short, based on real-life true-crime stories), but movie buffs will recognize flashes of their cinematic inspirations throughout. The film may be intentionally vague, but Radcliff and Wolkstein make clear cinematic references, and they build upon them to create a jarring, evocative thriller.
At the center of the film is the murky relationship between Nick (Pettyfer) and his apparent younger brother, Sam (Freedson-Jackson). From the beginning, there is a sense that they are each the most important person in the other’s lives—whether that be by necessity or by choice, we’re not totally sure. The audience mostly trusts in the perspective of teenage Sam, who has a tough time reconciling his mysterious past, his feelings for Nick (whatever those feelings may be) and his own young imagination.
Male relationships aren’t often presented like Nick and Sam’s on screen. However, the directors cite the 2004 film “Mysterious Skin”(directed by Gregg Araki), in which a teenage boy finds companionship in an older man after suffering sexual abuse, as a reference point. More broadly, the filmmakers looked to a repertoire of dramatic films that focus on teens experiencing some sort of trauma—and they aren’t your typical coming-of-age fare. From the 2007 Gus Van Sant drama “Paranoid Park” to the 2002 Belgian-French mystery “The Son,” there is an eeriness and feeling of unease that permeates the films that gave way to “The Strange Ones.” And fans of the acclaimed 2008 Swedish horror film “Let the Right One In” will find parallels as well; although “The Strange Ones” is not a horror movie in the classic sense, both films carry heavy suspense and focus on unlikely bonds.
Visually, the film is very much in the vein of Terrence Malick, particularly when it comes to the shots set in nature. Apart from the occasional iPhone sighting, “The Strange Ones” feels evergreen; this is largely thanks to filming in the wild, but the indoor locations have a decidedly retro feel as well, from roadside diners to a stint at a mostly abandoned motel. The references aren’t strictly visual, however. Longtime Malick admirers will sense parallels to 1973’s “Badlands,” as both films center around a teenager and older man out for themselves (plus, daddy issues). And although Radcliff and Wolkstein may have traded locations (they filmed in upstate New York), “The Strange Ones” has an earthy color palette that conjures a similar brand of American grit.
In addition to Malick, the influence of Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky can be felt quite heavily in the film. The director was known for his themes of memory and existentialism—both of which are prevalent in “The Strange Ones.” (How young is too young to have an existential crisis? Because Sam’s disillusionment, if nothing else, is real.) The plot of 1972’s Solaris may seem quite different on paper, but the concept of reality—and how our own consciousness distinguishes what’s real and what isn’t—is central to “The Strange Ones.”
Reflections were also a signature of Tarkovsky’s, and one that Radcliff and Wolkstein emulated in the filming of their main characters. Throughout the film, things like windows and water—transparent yet obscuring—stand in the way of the characters, a reminder that what you see in front of you isn’t always what’s really there. And no comparison to Tarkovsky can be made without mentioning fire—a recurring motif in many of his films, and something that has a significant role in “The Strange Ones” as well. Without giving away too much, the film opens with a stunning blaze that calls to mind Tarkovsky’s The Mirrorand The Sacrifice, and the moment serves as a flashback point and sets up one of the central mysteries.
When you finish watching “The Strange Ones,” you’ll have a lot of questions (where did that coffee mug go?), and that’s precisely the point: the film is all about perception. And what Sam perceives may be different than what you, the viewer, will take away from the experience. The film takes cues from outside inspirations, but the co-directors have crafted a psychological thriller unique to their own vision, and the result is a film unlike anything else you’ll see this year.
[Editors Note: This article is presented in partnership with DIRECTV’s original film “The Strange Ones”– now exclusively on DIRECTV Cinema]