Actor-turned-writer-director Thomas M. Wright, whose feature debut Acute Misfortune impressed many in 2018, utilizes a true-crime plot to sift through a stylish but sometimes ponderous meditation on male bonding, trust and identity in The Stranger. Pivoting around a high-intensity exhibition bout of chameleonic mimicry, mumbling and beard-growing from character actors Joel Edgerton (also a producer here) and Sean Harris, the film offers a fictionalized portrait of the massive undercover operation that cracked the infamous cold case of 13-year-old Daniel Morcombe, who went missing in 2003.
Assembled with seemingly deliberate disjointed editing that scrambles the time line, and shot through with unsettling shock cuts backed by Oliver Coates discordant, droning minimalist score, The Stranger definitely feels like an elevated genre exercise — more challenging than the average crime drama but also more interesting.
The Bottom Line
There will be a burning car.
Wright’s twisty, braided screenplay only gradually reveals the full picture of what’s going on, and lays much more emphasis on investigative procedure rather than the crime itself. Indeed, we never even meet the young victim at the center of the story, making him almost literally a chalk outline or a cardboard cutout who sets the plot in motion in the backstory.
Some viewers may find this a bit problematic as it ends up placing the killer as the subject of the story, or at least one of its main protagonists alongside the policeman hunting him down. That said, the director has cast his own son, Cormac Wright, as the child of Edgerton’s character Mark, amplifying the theme of parental anxiety, especially when the kid goes missing very briefly at one point.
In Australia, where the Morcombe story was a lead news item for years, the film will play very differently because viewers will go in aware of some of the key details. But for offshore audiences, mostly coming in cold, a general sense of the narrative’s direction will be indecipherable for a good stretch of the running time. Moreover, there’s a crucial legal detail that perhaps could be explained in a postscript, especially for the benefit of American, British and some European viewers. [Warning, spoilers ahead from this point on.]
The plot to unmask the killer depends on eliciting a confession from him using a massive fake criminal organization that demands the suspect reveal his darkest secrets in order to join the outfit, which is actually manned by undercover cops themselves.
The approach was first developed by the Royal Mounties in British Columbia, thus earning it the nickname the Canadian technique, also known as the Mr. Big technique. (No relation to Sex and the City.) However, in the States, the U.K. and many other places, confessions obtained this way aren’t admissible in court, so crime-genre fans in those territories, precisely the audience most inclined to see this, are likely to feel a bit baffled by the big reveal, and that could dampen word-of-mouth enthusiasm. This is a case of a film that’s actually improved if you know the spoilers beforehand, especially the fact that the Canadian technique is permissible in Australia.
In that light, The Stranger almost becomes a secret parable about the dangers of Method acting, of getting in too deep to a role. Everyone is essentially lying here, apart from Mark’s sweet-natured little boy. That’s particularly true of Harris’ lean, lushly bearded drifter Henry, who is first met arriving by bus in a southern Outback town.
En route, he meets Paul (Steve Mouzakis), who by subtle clues connects to Henry through a shared identity as ex-cons. He offers to set him up with a job working for local hard man Mark, who is also not what he seems. Once hired, Mark and Henry are teamed up for a number of deliveries of vaguely defined illicit items. The possibility of climbing the criminal ladder is dangled in front of Henry as long as he promises to come clean to the big boss about anything he may have done in the past that might get the organization in trouble.
This near-metaphysical meditation on truth-telling is laced up with a police operation going on in the background, one that involves, among others, Jada Alberts, practically the only female character in the film, as a detective investigating the case of the missing child.
Only gradually do all the storylines fuse together, including the strand involving Mark’s domestic situation, but the payoff is somehow a little flat. That may have to do with how effectively the film channels the monosyllabic, working-class Australian machismo of the “ocker” sensibility, which favors short sharp grunts over dialogue and — clearly a bylaw for nearly all Australian films starting from Walkabout in 1971 — a scene where a car is set on fire.
Fortunately, both Harris and Edgerton are past masters of this kind of performance. Given their physical resemblance, enhanced by hair growth and costuming, watching them together is like seeing a particularly manly pas de deux in which they coordinate and mimic one another as the two characters try to bond.
Future viewers watching on TV streamer channels may be inclined to use the subtitle option to follow the dialogue on The Stranger, while the film as a whole could also serve as a public service reminder on the advisability of sunscreen.