Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Review: "Strangerland"

Director: Kim Farrant
Runtime: 111 minutes

"Kids go missing out here; it's the land," says an elderly Aboriginal woman. "What does that mean?" replies a panicky Catherine Parker (Nicole Kidman). If you're trying to sum up Kim Farrant's Strangerland, that exchange is the most efficient means. Farrant's missing kids drama is mysterious and unsettling, but also frustratingly opaque. Though headlined by compelling actors and featuring some moody visuals, Farrant's debut doesn't have the complexity to lift its premise above the ordinary.

The above observations are all the more irritating to express, given that Strangerland comes loaded with so much promise. Like an Outback version of Prisoners, the film centers on the aftermath of the disappearing of two children. Parents Catherine and Matthew (Joseph Fiennes) are left reeling, and the ensuing investigation only pushes them further to the emotional brink. Local detective David Rae (Hugo Weaving) does what he can, but he, like everyone else in Strangerland, pales in comparison to the overwhelming force of nature that is the Australian desert. The Outback is not just a setting in Farrant's film, but also an important character. The problem is, by the film's end, the Outback emerges as the most consistent and developed member of the cast.

The issues stem mostly from Farrant's work as a writer, which often undercuts the promising strengths of her direction. Her characters are scattershot at best. Farrant's script teases any number of angles for both characters and plot, yet never has the guts to make a commitment. Even the consistent traits manifest in clunky, unsatisfying ways. The writing is most noticeably a hindrance for Kidman, for whom Strangerland should have provided a total knockout of a role. Instead, Farrant limits her star to playing the same few notes of repressed anguish until the last half hour, when it's time for the histrionics. Kidman does her best to breathe life into the role, but she's ultimately powerless against Farrant's wishy-washy material. Scenes in which Catherine acts out by trying to seduce men have potential on paper, but are clumsily interjected into the narrative. Just when Strangerland looks like it's finding a solid tempo, a left field misstep comes along and everything gets reset. 

The script is, somehow, even less generous to Fiennes and Weaving. Fiennes' Matthew suffers from the same repression as Catherine, only with fewer instances to go below the character's surface. Though at least Fiennes' role has something going on that's more than skin deep. Weaving, despite a natural presence in his role, is utterly wasted. Det. Rae has his own life, but the table scraps he's afforded feel like afterthoughts. They're the sort of details one adds at the last second so as to not fully give away that a major character is mostly a plot device. 

At complete odds with all of this is that some of Farrant's direction is quite solid, and at times even inspired. The film's opening sequence beautifully sets the tone, especially thanks to PJ Dillon's photography and Keefus Ciancia's score. Farrant's command of atmosphere is where Strangerland makes its mark, and it's disheartening to see said atmosphere be used to prop up characters that are badly in need of reworking. 

The ambition here is admirable, but Farrant's attempts to craft a probing, existential look at trauma and tragedy come off as simplistic and repetitive. In the right circumstances, film can turn emotional bleakness into something beautiful and transfixing. Strangerland, sadly, just isn't up to the task. Farrant doesn't need to explain what the Outback does to people, but she does need to provide more than ponderous questions and then leave literally everything else up to the viewer. Strangerland looks and sounds the part, to be sure, and in isolated moments it mesmerizes. But by the time the final shot of Kidman and Fiennes unspools, we're left in the same position as Catherine and Matthew: staring off into the harsh and ruggedly beautiful distance, wondering what the hell any of this means. The Outback didn't stop at swallowing up the Parkers' kids. It went and devoured the whole plot as well. 

Grade: C+

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