By Elias Savada.
The psychological story and claustrophobic/expansive landscape seem familiar, especially for fans of the series The Killing (2011-14) and Broadchurch (2013- ), recently watched locales where anyone and everyone might be guilty. Suspects (of something) are a-plenty in this return to Australian indie cinema, after a two-decade absence, by Nicole Kidman. Cut to its basic core, Strangerland, the first theatrical feature from shorts-commercials-television director Kim Tarrant, concerns an emotionally distant, messed-up family, cast adrift in a strange, remote land, confronted with issues of vulnerability that tear them asunder. The Parker clan has recently landed in a dusty, derelict spit of earth called Nathgari, which could easily be mistaken for a post-apocalyptic ghost town, one where skinned kangaroo carcasses hang like laundry out to dry and a full moon beckons some to wander. Plopped into this desert hellhole, the family is escaping and attempting to deal with — poorly — a scandalous past in Coonaburra, revealed like a slow fuse over its 111-minute length. You’d expect them to have hopes of starting anew, but the problems of the parents (Kidman, Joseph Fiennes) and their children (Maddison Brown, Nicholas Hamilton) hang over them like the red dust cloud that storms into town and turns the water to mud.
Love-starved Catherine (Kidman) can barely control her youngest, son Tommy, restlessly prone to walking about the town in the middle of the night, while dispassionate and triggered-tempered husband Matthew (Fiennes) is hateful to the world for shit-kicking him to this end of the world, where he’s now the town’s one and only pharmacist. Their ash-blonde-haired 15-year-old daughter Lily apparently suffers from high teenage hormones or low self esteem, and an even lower clothing allowance, as the scantily-clad Lolita prefers to distract any male who walks within eyesight. Yes, that includes all the men in the audience. It’s not only the temperature that’s hot here. The devil’s at work. Or maybe it’s author Fiona Seres (with additional assistance, apparently some years after the project began, from Irish screenwriter Michael Kinirons), with a debut feature for both of them. Seres graduated to the big screen after a decade writing episodes for Australian television, including Tangle (2009- ), an award-winning series she co-created about two families and the intrigue they foist on each other.
The plot afoot in Strangerland is revealed early on, when both Parker kids disappear into the night and local cop Rae (a fully-bearded Hugo Weaving) begins to investigate. Accusations fly about like dust in the wind. The list of gossip-fueled appellants and defendants (guilty or innocent, doesn’t matter) grows. A tattooed guy Lily ogled at the local skate park. Burtie (Meyne Wyatt), a simpleton who works for the Parkers. His sister, Coreen (Lisa Flanagan), who is schtupping the tender-hearted Rae. A former teacher. Maybe one of the parents. Or someone breathing on the other end of the phone.
Director Tarrant has crafted a nicely stylized film from its strange world, tension-filled screenplay. Not a fully nourished one, the film is still an interesting, even mesmerizing slice of bleak, small town life. Immersed in a personal loss of this magnitude, the Parkers’ oozing wounds are laid bare as Matthew’s anguish moves in a zig-zag course between introversion and anger, and Catherine’s slow descent into a state of distraught, wind-swept transference proves emotionally and physically draining. Kidman does a lot of screaming here, with raw passion spewing forth in the last 15 minutes as she tries to understand the inner workings of her daughter. She bares more than just her soul. As an Australian-Irish co-production, the film has a unique blend of talent from both countries, immensely aided by Irish director of photography PJ Dillon (Game of Thrones), whose first trip to Australia captured the harsh, alien panorama. “I had some custom-made diffusion filters that produce very particular effects…. I use those occasionally in a subtle way, not to have the visuals over-burden the narrative but to complement the narrative or reflect it.” The discordant, unsettling score that adds to the eerie melancholy infused throughout the film was created by American Keefus Ciancia (True Detective).
Secrets and lies are never healthy in a marriage or a family. And the kids notice, all too well, the destructive wounds being inflicted on one another. Unlike The Lord of the Rings films shot in nearby New Zealand, there are no wizards in Strangerland, but there is plenty of demonstrative pain and threatening darkness. Alchemy, a fairly new indie distributor that is releasing the film in U.S. theaters and on digital platforms on July 10, picked it up after it premiered in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.