StrangerlandReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/09/15 16:14:43
I don't necessarily mind when a film takes an enigmatic approach to its storytelling--allowing the audience to piece things together for themselves rather than spelling out everything for them in ridiculous detail--as long as it earns this approach by having some kind of point to it when all is said and done. The trouble with the new Australian drama "Strangerland" is that it is tries so hard to be mysterious and moody that it often loses track of the story it is trying to tell and the point that it is trying to make. The result is a big muddle of confusing scenes featuring actors struggling with unplayable characters that build to an ending so bewildering and pointless that anyone who makes it to the end will want to slap the projectionist silly afterwards for subjecting them to it.Set in the remote Australian outback town of Nathgari, the Parker family--father Matthew (Joseph Fiennes), mother Catherine (Nicole Kidman), 15-year-old hot-to-trot daughter Lily (Maddison Brown) and younger son Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton)--are trying to make a new start for themselves after having moved from the big city in the wake of a scandal involving Lily. All is not well with the family--Matthew is a barely controlled ball of rage, Tommy wanders out at night for walks to combat his inability to sleep, Lily flirts with every boy she meets and Catherine is barely holding it together--and things get exponentially worse when the two kids mysteriously vanish just before the onslaught of a fierce dust storm. While the townspeople and a local cop (Hugo Weaving) search the arid territory for a trace of the missing kids, Matthew and Catherine begin to act weirder and weirder. As time stretches on, suspicions begin to arise about the fate of the kids from both the townspeople, who already have questions about the newcomers, and between Catherine and Matthew themselves.
With its blend of overt sexual symbolism, tensions between the indigenous people of the Outback and white interlopers, the ever-present dangers of the Outback and a narrative approach that prefers to ask more questions than it answers, "Strangerland" is all but asking to be compared to similar classics of Australian cinema as "Wake in Fright," "Walkabout," "Picnic at Hanging Rock" and "The Last Wave." The difference, however, is that those films all had a point and a purpose while "Strangerland" is so aimless that it is difficult to understand what co-writers Michael Kinirons and Fiona Seres and director Kim Farrant were hoping to achieve in the first place. Is the story about the overwhelming power of female sexuality (it appears that Catherine, in her younger years, was just as sexually curious as Lily and those feelings suddenly reappear after her daughter vanishes) and the inability of men to respond to it with anything other than fear or rage? Is it about racial tensions in the Outback? Is it about the physical and emotional abuse of children and the toll that it can have on entire families? All of these possibilities are thrown into the mix but then the film fails to really deal with them in any significant way and, as I suggested before, the ending is such a botch that any viewers that actually make it that far are likely to feel highly insulted by the lame manner in which everything has been wrapped up.Outside of the compelling presence of Maddison Brown as Lily, whose onscreen time is necessarily brief, the only thing that "Strangerland" really has going for it is another strong performance by Nicole Kidman, adding another entry in what has to be one of the oddest filmographies of any A-list movie star in recent memory. Although she occasionally turns up from time to time in a highly commercial property, she has mostly devoted her career, especially since winning the Oscar for "The Hours," to lending her presence to a series of lower-profile projects where the paychecks are presumably smaller but where the roles are more complex. She has done that again here and while the film as a whole may not add up to much--even noted Kidman fanatic David Thomson would be hard-pressed to come up with much praise for it--the role of Catherine offers her a number of performance challenges that must have resonated with and which manage cut through the rest of the confusion with startling clarity. Throughout "Strangerland," Kidman lays herself bare, both physically and emotionally and it is just too bad that the film itself didn't do the same.
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