Film

Thomas M. Wright’s film The Stranger unflinchingly explores a landscape colonised by evil. By Christos Tsiolkas.

The Stranger

Joel Edgerton in Thomas M. Wright’s The Stranger.
Joel Edgerton in Thomas M. Wright’s The Stranger.
Credit: SeeSaw Films

Thomas M. Wright’s The Stranger is, literally and symbolically, a film of shadows. Night scenes dominate and the cinematography, by Sam Chiplin, is almost monochrome. When intense colour flashes through certain exterior shots – disquietingly beautiful sequences of forests and desert – the effect is startling. This is a landscape of hidden and malevolent spectres.

I was fortunate to see the film on the IMAX screen where it had its Australian premiere as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival. The disturbing, unrelenting grittiness gets under the viewer’s skin and I imagine that even when watched at home, The Stranger will prove a disturbing experience. But this is a rare Australian film framed and executed with the expansive cinema screen in mind.

The story is based on Kate Kyriacou’s The Sting, a forensic account of the hunt and capture of one of Australia’s most notorious child murderers. The script, written by Wright, is structured along alternate time lines. We are first introduced to Henry Teague, played by Sean Harris, as a passenger on a bus as it drives through the night. He falls into reluctant conversation with a stranger, Paul (Steve Mouzakis), and the two men quickly establish a rapport. Henry and Paul are both heading to Perth to escape unnamed demons. Once in the city, Paul insinuates that he might have a job for Henry as a dogsbody to an underworld gangster. Paul introduces him to Mark (Joel Edgerton), who also works for the shady, unnamed criminals. Henry and Mark – both taciturn loners with unprepossessing beards and ponytails – slowly become friends.

Except that Mark and Paul are undercover police officers, part of an elaborate investigation attempting to nail Henry for the abduction and murder of a young boy. The establishment and organisation of this police plot, the “sting” of Kyriacou’s title, is the second temporal order of the film. We see Mark and Henry’s friendship develop in the present, while Henry’s tracking by the police and the culmination of the evidence being built to convict him occurs in the recent past.

This is a complicated structure to maintain and there are moments of confusion – especially as it reaches its denouement – when the parallel time sequences don’t quite gel. This befuddlement is compounded by the clinical detachment Wright brings to his framing of the police work. There are some very talented actors playing the cops – in particular Mouzakis, Jada Alberts, Alan Dukes and Ewen Leslie – and we certainly get a sense of their unyielding commitment to entrapping Henry. Yet we are kept at such an emotional distance that the straightforwardly procedural scenes lack the urgency that is pivotal to the unfolding relationship between Mark and Henry.

Wright’s assuredness as both writer and director is clearest in essaying this relationship.  The film is at its most daring and provocative in its unflinching exploration of the dynamics between these two men. There is an enormous psychological cost for Mark in his wooing of Henry. It is here that the intricate manoeuvre of the structure pays off. We know that Mark is playing a cat-and-mouse game with Henry, yet we are also seduced into believing in the strength of the emerging friendship between these two strangers.

Some of the most complex scenes in the film involve Mark’s relationship with his child, played by the director’s son, Cormac Wright. The tension arising from Mark’s two different realities – that of his work and that of his criminal alter ego – starts to affect not only his home life but also his dreams. The filmmakers don’t step back from showing how befriending a sadistic killer poisons Mark’s self-understanding, how the pretended trust and intimacy make him question his own emotions and desires. In one particularly frightening dream, the identities of killer and police officer merge.

Wright’s facility for evoking nightmare worlds was evident in his first film, Acute Misfortune, which he wrote with The Saturday Paper’s editor-in-chief, Erik Jensen. It too centred on a friendship between two men, where the lines between trust and exploitation – and between friendship and sexual desire – became blurred. Acute Misfortune captured a particularly masculine recklessness that attaches itself to a compulsion towards danger. The character Edgerton plays in The Stranger is older and more experienced, but he too battles revulsion and temptation in his relationship with Henry. In the movie’s most confronting moment, Henry plays Mark a song, Icehouse’s Trojan Blue, and begins to dance. Harris’s immersion in the role is unflinching. The dance is awkward, ugly and frighteningly beguiling. The abhorrent figure, the paedophile, is revealed to be both monstrous and childlike.

The Stranger is a much more disciplined work than Acute Misfortune. That film – which examined the malevolent relationship between a sociopathic artist and a young reporter – never quite convinced us of the central importance of the painter’s vocation. Even so, it was compelling and demonstrated Wright’s talents as a director, particularly his care with actors and his preternatural ability to shift from realism to surrealism almost within a frame. His own experience as an actor must be central here: it’s as if, while working with the likes of Jonathan auf der Heide, Jane Campion and Warwick Thornton, he spent his time soaking up knowledge. There’s no flab in The Stranger. Even when the time shifts don’t quite make sense, our attention never flags.

A question hangs over the film, as with Justin Kurzel’s Nitram: why are so many Australian directors attracted to real-life stories of psychopathic violence? Nitram and The Stranger are vastly different films. The surprise of Nitram was its unexpected grace, how it made us aware of the intimacy of a family tragedy that was elided in the sensational media coverage of the Port Arthur massacre. The Stranger is a colder, harsher film.

One obvious answer to this question is the legacies of colonial violence and the misogyny that is also part of our history. Both in its formal detachment and in the intensely poisonous homosocial world it portrays, The Stranger feels akin to Rowan Woods’ The Boys (1998), another film that dealt with sickening male violence.

One reason why the scenes of police work don’t have the exigency of the scenes between Edgerton and Harris is that we have no sense of how the individual cops react to the crime. Their responses might be unformed, and possibly homophobic and reductive, when it comes to assessing the nature of the killer’s crimes, but I wanted to hear them argued. It’s clear that the filmmaker’s intention was to concentrate on the proficiency of the police investigation and, except for Mark, to present them only in their professional roles.

It is a choice that militates against a complex exploration of historic violence. The filmmakers must want us as an audience to make such connections: how else to explain the recurring long shot of the menacing forest landscape? Yes, it is where Henry buried his victim, but the portentousness of the shot suggests we are to read more in it.

I think that Jada Alberts does some remarkably forceful acting in her scenes, where her gestures and expressions quietly interrogate some of these silences. I wanted more of her.

The question of evil is central in both of Wright’s films. This concern distinguishes The Stranger from many other Australian films set in similar underworld terrains. He is still trying to find a language to express it as a writer but, in the nightmarish, claustrophobic mise en scène, he’s doing it instinctively as a director. His instincts are also spot on when it comes to his collaborators. The cinematography, the editing, the production design and the music of The Stranger are uniformly excellent. And in Edgerton and Harris he has found two actors who prove unstinting in their bravery.

The film’s final images suggest that while the nightmare has abated for Mark, the shadows are still out there, waiting. I can’t remember the last time I felt as unsettled leaving a film as I did when exiting IMAX and walking into a cold, dark Melbourne night. Its ethical honesty lies in acknowledging that when it comes to evil, there is no such thing as resolution.

The Stranger has its final screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 21.

ARTS DIARY

THEATRE Fourteen

Cremorne Theatre, Brisbane, August 27–September 13

CABARET Bernie Dieter’s Club Kabarett

First Fleet Park, Sydney, until September 25

EXHIBITION Australian Experimental Art Foundation Book Archive

Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, until November 6

LITERATURE Byron Bay Writer's Festival

Venues throughout Byron Bay, August 26-28

THEATRE Trust Me, It’s the End of Our World After All

The Blue Room Theatre, Perth, until September 3

LAST CHANCE

EXHIBITION Queer: Stories From the NGV Collection

National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, until August 21

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 20, 2022 as "Shadows within shadows".

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