The Strange Ones (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Co-writer-directors Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein create a most intriguing dramatic thriller that is certain to frustrate casual moviegoers since the work is uninterested in handholding and providing easily digestible answers. Its tone is languid, its look is unadorned, and its dialogue can be downright opaque. But its uncompromising approach is exactly what I admired about it. It inspires the viewer to look for answers, sometimes inside the confines of the picture and other times within ourselves based on our life experiences, that make sense of the bizarre story unfolding in front of us.
Two brothers, Nick (Alex Pettyfer) and Sam (James Freedson-Jackson), the former likely to be mid-twenties and the other about thirteen or fourteen, are on a road trip toward a camping ground—at least that is what they tell strangers they happen to come across. The latter half of that statement is true: their destination is a cabin in the woods where Nick spent a portion of his childhood. But Nick and Sam are no brothers. Their connection is unclear but it is made apparent they are on the run from the authorities as the camera keeps still and focuses on the face of the elder “brother” when cops enter a diner.
The first third of the film dazzled me because the shapeless plot gives the impression that it is capable of turning into whatever form with a snap of a finger. That’s exciting. When Sam confesses to Nick that there are occasions when he is unable to tell between dreams and reality, my conclusions bordered on science-fiction. There is something off-kilter about Sam; his physical body is, for example, sitting on a chair but his mind and spirit feel as though they are hovering just a few feet above. It seems he is not really there; is what we are seeing reality or a part of his dream? The screenplay plays upon this conceit and it makes for a compelling experience when some answers are revealed eventually.
Freedson-Jackson delivered solid work in Jon Watts’ thriller “Cop Car.” Here, he gives an entirely different performance, a melancholy variety, employing techniques utilized by veteran performers, such as breaking sentences mid-thought as well as taking an extra beat or two between sentences, and getting away with it. And because we wish to know what is going on exactly, we rely on the flow of dialogue to fish out some answers or a hint of one, at the very least. Still, the performance does not rest on techniques. It is in the way he controls those eyes, how he makes them look blank or empty for the most part and how a sliver of life appears there during the most unexpected moments.
There is beauty admixed with the film’s tragic core, not just when it comes to the rural backroads and lifestyles but also in the ordinary people who make up communities. Sam meets a work camp manager named Gary (Gene Jones) who seems to care for the boy deeply. The old man’s wisdom pierces through the fog; Sam senses this and so do we. And yet, the material does not turn Gary into a typical savior who sheds light on the past and heals all traumas. He serves as a beacon, a guide.
There is an intelligence to “The Strange Ones,” a knowingness, that will be invisible to those expecting a standard drama, mystery, or thriller. Should one dive in, be willing to put in the work and examine each strand in order to determine truths from daydreams.