The Stranger: A Review
Turns out, the most famous sting operation in Australia's history makes for a pretty good movie.
Netflix has a funny way of dropping the most incredible, inventive and unique movies of the year with absolutely zero lead-up or fanfare— even though they will also spend millions of dollars promoting the most mediocre content imaginable (cough cough, Wednesday).
The Stranger is an Australian crime thriller from actor-turned-director Tom Wright. It premiered at Cannes this past May to positive reviews. This review in particular contains MAJOR SPOILERS– so be warned!
The plot is a fictionalized account of the most famous undercover sting operation in Australian history. Based on crime reporter, Kate Kyriacou’s book The Sting, The Stranger tells the story of Brett Peter Cowan– who was accused (and later convicted) of the molestation and murder of 13-year-old Daniel Morcombe on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.
The Stranger is not entirely true-to-life. Names and personal details of those involved have been changed in the film– and some artistic liberties have been taken in order to craft a more compelling narrative. Brett Peter Cowan is now Henry Teague (played incredibly by Sean Harris), the undercover agent, “Fitzy”, is now Mark Frame (played by Joel Edgerton) and Daniel Morcombe is now James Liston.
The primary aspect of The Stranger that makes it one of the “most incredible, inventive and unique movies of the year” is the way the plot is revealed. Typically, filmmakers will introduce the viewer to their world from the outside-in. You will see establishing shots of the wider environment– the busy streets of Manhattan or the dusty, rolling plains of West Texas– then, that world will get progressively smaller. We’ll focus on a singular house, then a singular man, then our story will begin.
The Stranger breaks this convention. First we see our man, Henry Teague, drowned in darkness. Slowly, another man is illuminated, then their seats, then (after the foreboding voice over and ambient rushing sounds die down) we hear the diegetic rumblings of a bus. Finally, we see their world: the barren desert of Western Australia.
This is a smart choice for The Stranger because it forces the viewer to live through the sting the same way that Teague does. He doesn’t know the second illuminated man is an undercover cop, hell bent on coercing a confession out of him– and neither do we.
The cinematographer, Sam Chiplin, has us in a vice grip. The shots are composed like a Dutch Golden Age painting– dark and moody with golden hues and heavily shadowed faces. You see only what he wants you to see and nothing more. I was worried that this aspect would make the film feel hokey– that it would be too “arthouse”, too “played out” and “self-serious” that it would undermine the narrative.
But it doesn’t. Chiplin and Wright have mastered the “show don’t tell” rule of filmmaking. We are allowed as viewers to piece together information, make our own guesses and be surprised– which is the true joy of the Thriller genre.
There are, however, impactful moments wherein this rule is broken. I am thinking in particular of the moment where it is revealed to the audience that Mark (played by Joel Edgerton) is also an undercover policeman.
He is standing solitary in a rest stop bathroom. His face is illuminated by the red glow of the tape recorder. The composition of this shot reminded me of Errol Morris’ 1988 documentary Thin Blue Line with its lush hues and dramatic shadows. He speaks in hushed tones:
One, two, three, four, five.
I'm a sworn member of the Western Australian Police, conducting duties at the Undercover Crimes Unit in the investigation into the abduction and murder of James Liston on the 12th of May, 2002. Today's date is May 6, 2010. My CO number is 452 and I'm using the assumed name of Mark Frame.
This moment tells us everything we need to know. It’s theatrical and surprising– it made me audibly gasp during my first viewing. It was refreshing that the audience wasn’t forced to sit through an unnecessary and unrealistically stilted scene wherein one cop dutifully explained to another cop who “Mark Frame” was and why he was there.
That’s where The Stranger shines– it is able to balance gritty realism with craftful movie making. The performances are grounded and understated but more artistic elements like scene composition and the score are striking and tense.
Oliver Coates, who recently did great work on both Aftersun and Significant Other earlier this year, is responsible for that distinct and haunting soundscape found throughout the film. The rhythmic thud of windshield wipers punctuating a conversation, anxious fluttering filling a room during an otherwise uneventful scene, and a piercing ringing drowning out the dialogue during critical moments all elevate The Stranger from a procedural drama to a true cinematic thriller.
I have two favorite sound moments from this film– the first being when we are introduced to the fact that Teague and Frame’s conversations are recorded. We see the police installing the listening devices and then we cut to a shot of the two men outside the car, their voices muffled and full of static. All of a sudden the audience is on the other end of the recording. I thought it was a fun and artful move on Wright and Coates’ part and a classic gimmick that I recognized from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation.
The second sound moment I loved was when Teague played ICEHOUSE’s “Trojan Blue” for Frame in his living room. Hearing the sharp, 80’s synth intro and watching Teague’s skeletal body wiggle around felt reminiscent of Buffalo Bill’s famed “Goodbye Horses” scene from Silence of the Lambs. It is one of the few moments when we are allowed a glimpse into the truly frightful nature of Henry Teague.
Now, the timeline of The Stranger is where we struggle. The pacing can be a bit drawn out with seemingly random edits that I have been calling “jumpscare jump-cuts”. You can tell that the editor, Simon Njoo, is trying to craft a film that makes the viewer feel unsettled and disoriented, with the plot slowly dripping out into that “clear black lake” described by the voiceover. However, the result ends up being a narrative that jumps too frequently between the past and future, jumbling up the story and dragging out the ending for too long as they scramble to tie up loose ends.
Ultimately, The Stranger, feels like a wheezing chokehold– exciting then torturous. I would say that anywhere between 30-45 minutes of the runtime could’ve been left on the editing room floor. But we have to remember this is only Tom Wright’s second film– and if this is his “sophomore slump”, he has absolutely nothing to worry about.
I am anxiously awaiting his next project– hopefully I won’t have to dig through the depths of Netflix to find it.