Joel Edgerton’s drawling voice instructs us to “breathe out the dark black air” over an image of police officers combring long grass in search of something. Or someone. This is how “The Stranger” opens, posing the question of how much darkness we will need to breathe out in the course of the film. Thomas M. Wright — best known for playing Elisabeth Moss’s sexy, traumatized love interest in Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake” — offers a sophomore directorial outing that fits right in with the wave of early Australian directors who emerged with a crime drama pivoting around the bleakest of human deeds.
Compared with David Michôd’s dread-fueled “Animal Kingdom,” Justin Kurzel’s sadistic “Snowtown,” and Mirrah Faulkes’s vaudevillian “Judy & Punch,” this is a relatively straight and somber affair. Across locations that hop between Queensland and an anonymous Southern Australian sprawl, Wright draws a tasteful veil over macabre details that some of the above would have marinated in. Instead, the filmmaker focuses on setting up one kind of story before pulling the rug out to reveal something altogether, well, stranger.
On the note of strangers, initially it is impossible to tell whether this term is designed for Mark (Joel Edgerton) or Henry (Sean Harris). British actor Harris has been steadily cornering the market in playing profoundly unsettling characters over the years. He has, as we say in the UK, “something of the night about him,” with beady button eyes staring out of an inscrutable face and a body that is long and wiry, like a praying mantis. We meet Henry, sporting a straggly beard, as he pounds a treadmill in total darkness. There is a mutual attraction between Henry and Paul (Steve Mouzakis), a low-level criminal operator, after the pair meet on a plane. Henry doesn’t want to talk about who he is and Paul doesn’t want to know.
Creepy underworld figures meet the pair in hotel rooms to brief on assignments. The audience is aligned to Henry’s perspective of having no idea about the material function of his tasks. He is just grateful to have a job, which entails wingmanning Paul in couriering mysterious brown envelopes to mysterious men in mysterious locations. Harris channels a humor born of his uniquely odd screen presence, responding to a very menacing job offer with an offhand, “Yeah, why not?” Here is a man content to tie himself to an unknown criminal organisation with a light shrug of the shoulders.
There is a simmering strength to Wright’s decision to keep us on a-need-to-know basis for the duration of the first act. When a rattled Paul has to be sent out of the country, it’s unclear whether this is a Stalin-esque “disappearance” or whether he really is just being related. Mark steps into the breach as Henry’s immediate superior. Paul urges Henry to “trust Mark” — advice that cuts another way once “The Stranger” reveals its true identity.
Mark and Henry’s relationship shifts between collegiate and peculiar. It is designed to intrigue the audience, but as character details are few and far between, supposedly pregnant silences fall somewhat flat. We learn that Mark is a single dad and hear the opening voiceover again as he teaches his kid to meditate. Arguably, it is Mark with the dire need to let go of negativity, as we see his frayed temper coming out at home. Henry is a much more blank slate. He has been to jail and doesn’t want to go back. He lives alone and has few attachments.
The tempo starts to lag after the big reveal that precedes the second act. Wright’s choice to play his hand — a staggering, stranger-than-fiction one — in a muted fashion means there’s not much for the mood to do except offer: “More of the same, now from a different perspective!” Cinematographer Sam Chiplin delivers a visual language characterized by low-lit beige rooms, gray asphalt under a speeding car, and the bleached yellow grass of Southern Australian plains. Initially this scans as an appropriately drab creative decision, but as the real story takes over from the Macguffin, and loaded moments hinge on, say, a fax slowly being spat out of a printer, this visual language lands as underdeveloped.
Perhaps the best thing to say about “The Stranger” is that it understands the strength of the tragedy at its core. In the Greek myth, Perseus fighting the gorgon Medusa knew not to look her directly in the eye, lest he was turned to stone. Wright offers haunting details without showing us the full monstrosity of his sorry tale. There are shades of David Fincher’s “Zodiac” present in both the beige-tastic aesthetic and in the depiction of the personal toll of obsession.
Where Wright’s unflashy script allows, Edgerton does some of his best work, particularly as the film approaches its finale. The last few scenes are very strong indeed, as the subdued mood gives way to the latent emotion of the story. Had Wright focused on letting these emotions ebb and flow throughout the runtime, this could have been a genuinely devastating film. As things stand, this is a curious, slightly underwhelming offering. Even so, falling flat as a result of being understated to a fault is a promising event in a genre dominated by obvious signposting, and Wright is certainly one to watch for the future.
“The Stranger” premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.