Every year at the New Zealand International Film Festival, I take a swing on a few titles I don’t know much about and which seem to have only a little buzz around them, in the hopes of finding a hidden gem. Usually these searches don’t amount to much. This year, on a sparsely attended Sunday evening in chilly midwinter, the lights went down on Thomas M. Wright’s The Stranger, one such swing, and it quickly emerged as one of my favourite films of the year. For two hours, the film held the audience in quiet, tense silence, as this appropriately quiet, tense film washed over us in all its shadowy, nihilistic glory. It was a difficult experience to shake.
Thomas M Wright is likely more known to most as an actor, playing Johnno in Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake. Here, he is working in a genre that modern Australian cinema has come to be known for, nearly as much as their Scandinavian counterparts – the dark, handsome, serious crime drama. As with other recent efforts like Snowtown or last year’s excellent Nitram, Wright’s film is a muscular portrayal of a gripping true-crime story, albeit one less concerned with recounting the moment to moment of the famous crime sting that brought down the murderer of thirteen-year-old Daniel Morcombe than it is in plunging into the paranoiac psychology of the undercover policeman tasked with catching him. Much like Nitram, the film arrives somewhat beset by controversy – the parents of Morcombe have spoken out against the film, claiming that it glorifies the murderer and the killing. To me, this is an unlikely reading of a film that presents the murderer (played by a never-creepier Sean Harris) as a damnable monster, complete with thick, unkempt hair and haunted, black eyes. His name, and the name of the victim, is never mentioned, nor is the murder or the resulting body shown.
The latest in a series of stirring Australian true-crime dramas is this stunner from multi-hyphenate Thomas M. Wright (of Top of the Lake fame), which may be the best example of the form yet. Featuring a simmering, immense performance from Joel Edgerton, it’s releasing on Netflix to little fanfare – but don’t let it pass you by.
The film follows the efforts of a sprawling undercover unit to convince the murderer of his position in a non-existent drug smuggling entity, in order to lure the eventual truth out of him once they have gained his trust. At the swirling centre of this grand fiction is Mark, played with understated brilliance by a never-better Joel Edgerton, a cop posing as a mid-level crime boss who is responsible for interacting with the killer. The film unfolds slowly, methodically, and so quietly that a pin drop is likely to give you a start. The violence of the film is largely psychological, as the murderer’s presence, and the closeness to potential violence, begins to wear on Mark’s mind. Intercut sequences of Mark with his young son are ongoing reminders of the risk the man is taking, and also of the reason why he does it in the first place.
As the anchor of the film, Edgerton is delivering career-best work, as a man constantly in fight or flight mode, but having to play it cool or risk unravelling the entire operation. He is ably matched by Harris, and the film largely unfolds as a gripping two-hander, where you’re never entirely sure of how much each of them knows of the other’s intentions, or what they have the potential to do at any given moment. It is stunningly lensed by cinematographer Sam Chiplin, who drapes the film in nightmarish darkness or dusty desaturation during day scenes, highlighting the starkness of Mark’s psychological and physical plight. It is a near-laughless, resolutely serious film, but never does a feeling of pretentiousness weaken the film’s foundations. Rather, it is a statement of intent from emerging filmmaker Wright, a picture that hums with intensity and, tellingly, earnestness, never straying to irony or attempting to lighten the load of the weighty story before him. Netflix seems to be putting little in the way of marketing behind this fantastic film, a shame considering it is one of the year’s best. In a just world, it’s the type of offering that should be seen on the big screen, where its creeping dread slowly coats you like a viscous film.
Stream The Stranger on Netflix.
Movie title: The Stranger (Wright, 2022)
Movie description: The latest in a series of stirring Australian true-crime dramas is this stunner from multi-hyphenate Thomas M. Wright (of Top of the Lake fame), which may be the best example of the form yet. Featuring a simmering, immense performance from Joel Edgerton, it’s releasing on Netflix to little fanfare - but don’t let it pass you by.
Date published: October 20, 2022
Author: Thomas M. Wright
Director(s): Thomas M. Wright
Actor(s): Joel Edgerton, Sean Harris, Ewen Leslie
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller