Sydney Film Festival Review: Strangerland (Australia/Ireland, 2014)

strangerland pic

Kim Farrant’s Strangerland has a magical and mythical quality to it, making full use of the Australian outback with rich, rocky-red landscape shots that swallow the film’s characters in expansive, ambitious cinematography. But while visually impressive, Strangerland’s flaws lie in a commitment to ambiguity, presenting itself as one thing and then veering off into another to give it’s veteran actors a chance to remind us of how well they can do psychodrama.

Catherine (Nicole Kidman) and Matthew Parker (Joseph Fiennes) have recently settled into the fictitious town of Nathgary with their two children; troublesome teenager Lily (Maddison Brown) and her younger brother Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton). Not a single member of the family is happy with their new home, and there’s a tension between them all resulting from Lily’s promiscuity in the previous town in which they lived.

The towns youth spend their days at a make-shift skate park, having sex in old shipping containers and getting high while the temperature soars. It’s an environment that the Parker’s cannot avoid unwillingly placing their daughter into, with her getting involved in more than one sexual relationship around the area. By every indication, Lily takes after Catherine, leading to an increasingly distant Matthew who very clearly has developed a distaste for the two women in his life.

Matthew is up late one night and apathetically watches his two children sneak off into the night, not expecting them to actually go missing before the next day’s giant dust storm sweeps through Nathgary. The disappearance of the two children brings Hugo Weaving into the film as Detective Rae, and his attempt to piece together where the children went and why they would seemingly run away dusts away at the family’s frustrating knack for keeping secrets from one another.

The investigation is full of brief red herrings and awash with the film’s ambiguity, but it’s necessary to stall Rae’s progress so uncertainty can seep into both Catherine and Matthew and result in Strangerland’s real focus, mental decay. It’s this desperation and pessimism that gives Fiennes and especially Kidman something they can really work with, with Matthew resorting to slow-burning rage while the other dives into something much darker than just grief.

Sex as a distraction is a powerful theme here, and it’s used as a way to bring Kidman out of her head if only for a brief moment. Sex is also used as the connection she has with her daughter, in one particularly hard-to-watch scene she throws herself as a younger boy with brain damage, whom Lily has been sleeping with, to try and maintain a bridge between herself and her daughter. Logic here is purposely cast aside, and watching Kidman sink further and further into misery and desperation becomes the most haunting aspect of Strangerland.

The other haunting aspect is the land. The Australian outback is a terrifying setting in Australian cinema, and that’s nothing new. Farrant navigates Nathgary (actually the NSW town of Canowindra) and it’s surrounding desert with an admirable sense of scale, using it to achieve a hazy dreamscape aesthetic that awkwardly interrupts the flow of the film at times but is effectively menacing when the plot looks to lore.

One thing that does not work at all here is the flimsy dynamic between Weaving and Kidman, and while the two are brilliant in this film irrespective of each other, any attempt at developing Detective Rae beyond a solemn detective caught up in another family’s drama falls flat for the sake of the film’s restraint.

While a more cohesive narrative and a chance to properly develop the supporting cast would have been welcome, Strangerland is still a terrific psychological thriller that’s easy on the eye and challenging enough to watch, raising some powerful themes but never really following them through.

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Running Time: 112 minutes

Strangerland has it’s first screening yesterday at the Sydney Film Festival and will screen three times today. More details can be found HERE