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Strangerland, directed by Kim Farant and written by Michael Kinirons and Fiona Seres, is well-acted drama with some truly standout moments that never really works as well as it should considering the talent involved.
The movie is set in a small town in the rural outback of Australia and focuses on a family of four – Matthew (Joseph Fiennes) and Catherine (Nicole Kidman), and their two children Tom (Nicholas Hamilton) and Lily (Maddison Brown). When Tom and Lily go missing just before a dust storm hits the town, the parents turn to the police for help, with Rae (Hugo Weaving) taking charge of the investigation.
It becomes clear pretty quickly that Strangerland is not interested in the mystery of the children’s disappearance. The story provides answers to just about every question you might have about the case fairly early on, and while some new details come to light, they mostly just contextualize what viewers already know or suspected. Instead Strangerland focuses on the parents and their troubled marriage. The tension between Matthew and Catherine combined with the toll of their missing children pushes to the breaking point, with Rae serving as an intermediary character that helps put what they are going through in perspective – Matthew starts to become increasingly distrustful of and antagonistic towards the police officer, while Catherine leans on him more and more for support as the days go by.
The stifling heat and vast expanses of the Australian outback compliment the themes and character conflicts extremely well, with the added benefit of an excellent, haunting score.
The problem is that Strangerland moves at a very slow pace, one that feels more appropriate for building up tension in a mystery or a thriller, but smothers the drama. The movie is disinterested in the investigation throughout, but fails to fill that void with meaningful character interactions. There are a handful of truly terrific scenes, particularly in the later half, but they are few and far between in what feel like long stretches of nothing happening. It’s a shame because everyone delivers a strong, committed performance, especially Nicole Kidman.
Strangerland is intentionally stripped down, like it was trying to home in on Matthew and Catherine’s emotional turmoil at the expense of everything else. As people in the town grow weary and even suspicious of the two of them over the whole situation, it’s Matthew and Catherine’s reaction that the movie focuses on, and not the hostility itself.
That focus was more a burden, however, as if the movie had more to offer that was removed so that the story be more about Matthew and Catherine. They are interesting, complex characters, but there’s not enough going on with them to carry the whole movie through. As a result, Strangerland ends up feeling disappointingly hollow. It’s not a bad movie, but it does not manage to be a good one either.
Strangerland is distributed by Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment and is available on DVD and Digital HD from the 4th of July.