The only mystery in this debut feature is why actors of this caliber signed up for it.
There must be something that entices filmmakers to explore the Outback. Whether it’s the post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max, trying to survive in Walkabout, going on a journey to hell in Wake in Fright, or overcoming your personal demons in Tracks, the opportunities for stories in the dry landscapes of Australia seem to be as vast as the lands themselves. And now, first-time director Kim Farrant takes a stab at using the Outback as an all-encompassing setting in Strangerland. It’s a film that tries to compare the plight of characters in an intense crisis with the desert surrounding them, but it’s a connection that feels redundant; the film is as dry, empty and unwelcoming as the land it’s set in.
The Parker family are anything but perfect. Having recently moved from the city to the (fictional) rural town of Nathgari, it’s evident that some sort of scandal prompted their uprooting (the reason for their move turns out to be a total snooze). Catherine (Nicole Kidman) and Matthew (Joseph Fiennes) have a frayed marriage—they don’t sleep in the same bed, he refuses to have sex with her—while their two teenage children Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton) and Lily (Maddison Brown) love getting into trouble. Tommy has a tendency to walk around town in the middle of the night when he can’t sleep, but it’s 15-year-old Lily’s strong sexual appetite that causes the most friction between Catherine and (especially) Matthew. After a heated argument at the dinner table, Tommy and Lily wander off into the night, except neither of them come back the next day. With a giant dust storm coming through town Catherine panics, enlisting the help of local cop Rae (Hugo Weaving) to find her children, and Matthew channels his own concerns into seething, impotent rage.
As time goes on and the kids’ whereabouts remain unknown, it’s apparent that Farrant and screenwriters Fiona Seres and Michael Kinirons have taken a page out of Antonioni’s book (or, to keep it Australian, Peter Weir’s). The big question here is focused less on the “Where” and more on the “How”: how does the disappearance impact Catherine, Matthew and their marriage, along with the tight-knit community of Nathgari? Farrant explores the way pain and grief transforms people through two characters as penetrable as a slab of concrete. Seres and Kinirons’ screenplay prefers vague allusions over explanations (a single line by Matthew early on implies Catherine was just as promiscuous as Lily in her younger years), a choice that makes character motivations and actions murky and irrational. Farrant’s direction is quite lacking too, with a workmanlike quality that only conveys basic information when the film is all about complex emotions.
At least Farrant gathered quite the cast for her debut, even though they can’t elevate the material that much. Kidman hurls herself into her role, but while it’s easy to believe Catherine as a person, it’s much harder to believe in her actions; the latter half has Catherine behaving inexplicably, with Farrant assuming viewers will understand she’s distraught and fill in the blanks from there. Fiennes does what he can with his role as the archetypical emasculated patriarch, ready to pummel any man that might have slept with his daughter. The highlight is Hugo Weaving, the kind of thespian who puts the “support” in “supporting actor.” He actually has chemistry with Kidman, and a presence that makes his subplot—a relationship with an Aboriginal woman inadvertently related to the disappearance—more interesting than the main storyline. Strangerland amounts to little more than a turgid 2 hours with a pair of bland, lifeless characters. By the end, I was jealous of their missing kids. When they walked out of the film in the first act, I should have taken their lead.
Strangerland opens Friday, July 10th in select theatres, VOD and iTunes.