The Stranger‘s palpable atmosphere can prove meandering, even if it crafts fascinating and nuanced characters out of its leads’ performances.
Set in the bleak Australian outskirts, writer-director Thomas M. Wright’s new crime thriller, The Stranger, eschews glaringly bright vistas for shadows. Starring Joel Edgerton and Sean Harris, The Stranger is the story of an undercover cop (Edgerton) tasked with posing as a mid-level gangster to obtain a confession from a career criminal and alleged child murderer (Harris). As the two men grow closer, the strain on both their psyches emerges, and the net around the latter grows tighter and tighter.
Wright focuses intently on the dynamic between the two men, almost to the exclusion of everything else. Time is given to Edgerton’s strained dynamic with his child and the toll that years of police work have taken on his mental health, but beyond this, the film is almost a two- hander, eliminating all distractions to make room for the pair’s fraught relationship. It’s certainly an effective choice. Harris and Edgerton have such a menacing chemistry that Wright’s script doesn’t need elaborate twists or schemes to earn its name as a thriller — all it does are two men who spend intense amounts of time together, often in small spaces, slowly escalating their relationship. One knows all, one knows next to nothing, but both are equally dangerous to each other in spite of the uneasy, desperate trust they build. Even Wright’s script is scarce on dialogue, with his characters (especially the two leads) speaking in short, terse sentences as though afraid that to talk for too long is to risk self-exposure. As the story and intimacy between the two men develop, language and dialogue become a minefield to navigate, each new casual inquiry a risk to be calculated. Wright’s restraint as a writer belies a confidence in the tone of his film and in his performers’ considerable abilities to imbue each silence with a palpable sense of dread and inevitable disaster.
This sense of dread, masterfully crafted as it is, seems to be the only note The Stranger knows how to play. It’s a strong one, of course, but with such unswerving focus on a single atmosphere, the film can drift into repetitiveness, and even Edgerton and Harris’ captivating performances can’t entirely carry the film through its sagging middle. The film stagnates within its own bleakness, with Wright’s refusal to relent even for a second offering an admirable exercise in tone but not necessarily a dynamic and thrilling viewing experience. Like the colorless cinematography that casts perpetual shadow and night over its story, The Stranger operates entirely in shades of gray, an approach that crafts fascinating, nuanced characters out of Edgerton and Harris’ performances, but leads to the rest of the film being somewhat indistinguishable from the majority of other true-story crime narratives — all the familiar details blurred into a dismal gray backdrop.
You can currently stream Thomas Wright’s The Stranger on Netflix.