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    Strangerland (2015): Movie Review

    “A murky tale of a distraught family in a foreign land.” 

    As dusty as its Australian outback setting, Kim Farrant’s debut feature Strangerland is a story about the mysterious disappearance of two children and the horrifying echoes it sent to their estranged parents and to the backward community. Combining elements of noir, suspense, mystery and police investigation, the film creatively uses metaphors to explore human turmoil and pathos. 

    The Parker family is new to the secluded fictional Australian desert town of Nathgari. The matriarch Catherine (Nicole Kidman) is not close to anyone, as much as to his husband Matthew (Joseph Fiennes) who is not even sharing a room with her. They have two children – son Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton) who walks in his sleep and 15-year-old Lily (Madison Brown) who is in her sexual plateau. Parading around in her undies, Lily flirts with every man and this reckless behavior irritates her father that he assigns Tommy as her chaperone.

    An inexplicable turn of event soon disturbs the shaky family and the sleepy town. On the eve of a massive dust storm, Lily and Tommy disappear into the desert. Local cop David Rae (Hugo Weaving) leads the search in the succeeding days. Incidentally, Rae is romantically involved with an Aboriginal woman named Coreen (Lisa Flanagan) whose mentally unstable younger brother Burtie (Meyne Wyatt) may possible one of Lily’s sexual partners.

    Consequently, Lily’s dark past of having sexual engagement with her previous teacher is brought to open, reason that the family moved to the town on the first place. The incident takes its toll on the couple, with Matthew physically assaulting Burtie and Catherine being stained with damaging rumors. Through this trial, the family will re-examine themselves and the traumas that drove them to where they are now. 

    Strangerland is a movie of strange layers. While it depicts how unfounded rumors in a small town can be damaging and how difficult burying shameful pasts can be, it portrays how human respond to such situations by drawing strength from within and from people surrounding them. This holds true for the two main characters. While Matthew channels his frustration through physical outburst, Catherine longs for embraces and love. The film is quite evident about it as she constantly shows sexual innuendos to her husband and to the men around. “She didn’t get it from me, did she?” Matthew snaps at Catherine at some point in the film, hinting that their daughter reflects Catherine’s own free-spirited sexuality.

    As much as the fictional town had been covered with fine red dust after the storm, the film is shrouded with ambiguity with its uneven, murky and unpersuasive storytelling. Apparently, it leans more towards being psychodrama as the mystery angles and police investigations are never fully developed. It even broaches the local beliefs that the desert habitually takes innocent victims. Mysteries pile one after another without clear answers until the film ends with uncertainty of the family’s fate. On the first place, why did Lily run away?

    All actors give winning performance on this movie. While Fiennes justifies Matthew’s nonchalance and disquiet with sexuality (he did not even stand or move a bit from his seat while his wife rides on him), Weaving exuded much prowess and virility as local cop Rae. With the unbalanced personality of Catherine, Kidman has so much to play with and successfully delivers praiseworthy results. Mostly full of anguish, she also sails between being sexually needy and subtly savage within. She also showed believable chemistry with her leading men, especially with Weaving as their characters match each other.

    Aside from the obvious commitment the actors had given to the film, Strangerland also excels in capturing the beauty of Australia – its desert, mountains and woods. Shot in long frames, the wilderness stretches through vast space, giving a sense of freedom from its muddled and suffocating narrative. Except with the CGI dust storm, the summer light, desert heat and various colors add extra vibrancy and mystery to the film. Yet, the dust mostly did not settle as the film ended.


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