‘The Stranger’ review: Joel Edgerton and Sean Harris face off in this taut, unnerving Australian detective drama [B+] | LFF
Thomas Wright’s Australian detective drama stars Joel Edgerton and Sean Harris, and it’s a gripping film that is unconventionally delicate. This delicacy in the storytelling comes from the precarious situation that Edgerton’s character finds himself in, he is deep undercover but finds a connection with his target.
The premise is all one big ruse to try and elicit a confession from a suspected murderer. The suspect is Henry Teague (Sean Harris), a repeat offender who is trying to distance himself from violence. Henry’s path leads him to meeting Paul (Steve Mouzakis), who introduces him to Mark (Joel Edgerton). Unbeknownst to Henry, Mark is an undercover operative who is pretending to work for an Australia-wide criminal syndicate. The two connect as they spend time together doing jobs for the organisation, but both have burgeoning secrets that threaten to destabilise their relationship.
Cinematographer Sam Chaplin’s lensing adds to the film’s gloomy, dread-filled atmosphere, as his images brilliantly play with shadows. Much of the film is shot in low-light, or high contrast, situations which forces the audience to be trepidatious, especially given the overall mood of the film. Chaplin’s shots pair well with the darkness of the film’s screenplay, although it has deep connections to the detective drama, its meandering nature comes across as quite unusual. Such a mood comes from the characters and how they interact, little is said and done. Lots of “yeah mate” lines are uttered, favouring short, realistic replies over long-winded and overly meaningful responses. The film’s ongoing investigation is vividly critical of Henry, but Wright allows spectators to make an initial connection with the so-called killer before sharply ripping all trust away. Our emotions almost mimic that of Edgerton’s protagonist, who becomes increasingly disturbed by his dangerous, ongoing charade.
Much of the film makes one question just how bad, or evil, Henry is, especially given how supposedly kind and grateful he is to Mark. Henry is, in fact, very honest to Mark and his employers about his past actions when asked, despite being weary about questions, because he trusts his so-called friend. Harris is unnervingly quiet and enigmatic for the most part, but occasionally breaks into short bursts of sporadic mania. Edgerton really sells Mark’s complete anguish about his work and the effects of it. He often wakes up after having nightmares which almost feel real, it’s hard to tell the difference between dream and reality. The torment that he goes through is deeply distressing, and for much of the film, the audience is engulfed in close proximity to each character’s emotions, allowing little room for spectators to catch a break. The inclusion of Mark’s child adds a further layer of tension as one awaits Henry’s arrival, perhaps to repeat his past actions. It works as a psychological study into the thinking of a killer and the psychological toll it takes to forcibly get close to someone unstable and potentially dangerous.
Very much a seemingly traditional detective drama, it has all the usual characters and beats that one expects, but it’s less interested with the mechanics of the investigation process. The only time we properly see Mark’s detective colleagues, who are hard at work trying to nail Henry, is later in the film. And by this time, it’s clear that Henry isn’t going to get away with it anymore. Mark’s colleagues almost act as a lifeline to him, breaking him free of his internal torment. The way that Wright’s film is crafted allows for deep, active engagement as one itches for a conclusion that distances Mark away from Henry. It’s truly well-made on all fronts, with some solid, tension-filled sound work alongside brooding cinematography and a set of delicate performances led by a great director.
This review is from the 2022 BFI London Film Festival. The Stranger will be released on Netflix but currently does not have a U.S. premiere date.