In Kim Farrant’s feature length debut film Strangerland, the Australian outback – where the central mystery takes place – is a desolate, foreboding and almost mythical expanse that swallows people whole without any sign or explanation. Like the best works of Peter Weir (especially this film’s obvious reference point to his 1975 film Picnic At Hanging Rock) or Antonioni’s L’Avventurra, its man versus inscrutable nature when a silent disappearance forces everyone to challenge their assumptions. Heat-soaked days and muted emotions are the common trade in Strangerland, which slowly coils its way through several genres including police procedural, psychological thriller and eco-horror film. It has a lot to say about all of these things, which may be the reason it comes off as ultimately muddled and abbreviated in its cumulative effect.
When sexually adventurous young Lily (Maddison Brown) and brother Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton) go missing one night, mom Catherine (Nicole Kidman) and father Matthew (Joseph Fiennes) are left to pick up the voided pieces. Not only are they struggling as the new and unknown family in town, but it’s soon revealed they’re running from previous past indiscretions involving young Lily and an older man. Complicating matters is Kidman and Fiennes’ harboring of their own marital deficiencies.
Facilitating the search for the missing pair is local cop, David (Hugo Weaving), doing his best to avoid the morally ambiguous vacuum since he’s so close to many of the locals who come under the spotlight of his investigation. There’s the mentally disabled worker for the family, Burtie (Meyne Wyatt), who may have held a secret crush on Lily. Or the numerous denizens of the skate park where Lily and Tommy skipped school and hung out. Further still, suspicions are cast close to home as father Matthew’s violent history and nonchalant reaction to everything becomes troubling.
As Strangerland progresses, the brunt of the narrative moves away from the children and falls on the capable shoulders of Kidman, portraying Catherine as a mother unraveling in all directions, and it works best when she holds the screen with various shades of grief, guilt and confusion. In one harrowing scene, she literally yells into the night begging for her children to be returned. As a morbid character study, it hits all the right notes. Less successful are the film’s other avenues, such as its heavy handed poetic voice-over by young Lily, the quite derivative turns between certain characters and Fiennes role as a father hinged somewhere between the rabid nihilism of Max Cady from Cape Fear and the sorrow-draped Sean Penn in Mystic River.
Despite the uneven aspects of Strangerland, director Farrant shows assured promise as a filmmaker. In one deliciously fabricated event, as a violent dust storm swells up soon after the kids go missing and traps Kidman and Fiennes in their car, a solitary, unidentified hand slaps against the window with a ghostly thud and then slowly pulls away. Visually and thematically, this moment encapsulates the mood of Strangerland. Adults, seemingly out of control, whose sins have been transferred and imprinted onto their children. If only the ominous metaphoric tone of this moment could have been sustained through the rest of the film.
Strangerland opens in limited release on Friday, July 10 at the Angelika Plano.