★★ / ★★★★
“Strangerland,” written by Michael Kinirons and Fiona Seres, is one that can easily be labeled as boring, slow, a drag, and a waste of time. That, too, was my impression until about halfway through when I began to recognize its creeping power. Although not at all a successful piece of work—certainly not one that will be remembered years from now—I came to admire the writers’ courage to not give us all the answers. I could not stop thinking about the movie long after it was over—which is a sign that, although somewhat of an experience to be endured, it is probably worth seeing at least once.
Catherine (Nicole Kidman) oversleeps and notices that her two children, Lily (Maddison Brown) and Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton), are neither in their beds nor inside the house. There is news that a dust storm is predicted to go through the Australian small town, and Catherine feels that something is very wrong. When she gives a call to her pharmacist husband (Joseph Fiennes), her concerns are dismissed almost immediately. Matthew neglects to tell her wife that the night before, he saw his children sneaking out of the house. Something tells him they have not returned since.
Director Kim Farrant makes a few fresh but frustrating choices in terms of storytelling. Instead of going for the melodrama, she turns the focus toward the bizarre in order to excavate secrets shared only between spouses as well as secrets that are so damaging and horrifying, they are best hidden deep in the subconscious. As a result, we observe scenes that depict extreme behaviors. Since very thin context is provided, we scratch our heads when it comes to figuring out what the filmmakers hope to communicate.
There is a lot of talk around town about the whereabouts of the minors. Some claim that there is a mythical Rainbow Serpent roaming the land and the two have become its prisoners. There is talk involving the land being cursed, that children just tend to go missing once in a while. People at the grocery store are convinced that it is a case of an alien abduction. Supposedly, aliens are able to land their spacecrafts just outside of town because the land there is empty and vast.
Some gossip point to the parents. Maybe they killed their own children and are only pretending to be distraught. Others say Lily and Tommy probably ran away and are now lost in the desert. Meanwhile, a cop (Hugo Weaving) tries his best to get to the bottom of the mystery without getting involved too personally.
Although there are plenty of holes in the plot, I loved certain details that ring true. Here, it is shown clearly that people are still capable of cruelty despite knowing that you and your family are going through a difficult time. For instance, the teenagers who know Lily crudely tell Catherine that her daughter is essentially a whore—a willing hole to be used by the boys in a nearby storage container located only a few steps from the skate park.
“Strangerland” is not a fulfilling film because it leaves a lot of questions—basic questions—left unanswered. Halfway through, I let go and learned to appreciate each scene as it is. That is, an exercise in technical proficiency, from the framing of the performers’ faces to the beautiful shots framing the simple lifestyles of the residents. Perhaps not getting all of the answers is the point. Catherine and Matthew, whose marriage is in a state of deterioration where a possible reason is only implied, certainly do not get closure. There are films where audiences are meant to bathe in the bleakness.