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Strangerland is a compelling movie, but one that will likely frustrate audiences. Bit by bit, the film allows the viewers to piece together a picture of each of these characters, drifting from one character's experience to the next in a passive, nearly random way. Taken as a whole, the film paints a picture of how grief can affect people in different times, at different ways, how one person's split-second decision can be a shattering moment for another. Yet, while I believe director Kim Farrant and screenwriters Fiona Seres and Michael Kinirons are intending to create of emotional and dramatic ambiguity that settles over the film's final moments, it's easy to picture viewers accustomed to more traditional payoffs being angered by it. It's a shame, too, because this is a movie filled with excellent performances by its core ensemble cast.
The kids are not as elaborately sketched as the parents, but their stories are certainly relevant. Tommy is the quietest, but there is something about the way he dutifully follows his older sister, enabling her rebelliousness but also seemingly concerned, watching out for potential dangers. Lily, on the other hand, is a bundle of hormones and emotions, sneaking out to the local skate park where she can get close to young men twice her age. When she's at home and mechanic/family friend Burtie (Meyne Wyatt) swings by, she appears in the doorway wearing a raggedy shirt and panties, and slinks past him in her bathing suit while he's outside, stopping to whisper in his ear. Matthew becomes angry when he sees this behavior, becoming red-faced and tensing up, but Catherine seems more sympathetic -- concerned, but almost wistful reflecting on the experience of being a fifteen year-old girl.
Each of these experiences can be traced back to an incident within the Parker family history, one which caused them to abruptly move from a more populated suburban area to a remote area in the outback. When Lily and Tom both disappear, Matthew is reluctant to make a big deal out of it, figuring they'll find their way home within a few days, but Catherine is more distraught, insisting that they take it to the police. Although Lily is gone, we learn a great deal about her complex emotional state through a diary that Catherine discovers in her room, a troubling but deeply sympathetic portrait of a million feelings and ideas all coming down on her at once. Catherine becomes overwhelmed with compassion for her daughter, while Matthew, forced to confront the fact that they really are missing, becomes furious, looking for someone to blame and punish for their disappearance.
Kidman, who has increasingly moved away from blockbusters in favor of smaller films with talented filmmakers, anchors the film with an incredibly nuanced performance. Catherine longs to connect with her daughter, to discuss the things she finds in her diary, but also discovers an odd jealousy, in that men like Burtie or her husband are so aware of Lily's sexuality, and so ignorant of her own. As the search drags on, she begins acting out, toward Matthew (who is utterly clueless), and to others. Each interaction has its own meaning and reasons, which Farrant provides to us beforehand, but for Catherine they only reinforce her own anxieties and doubt. Throughout the ordeal, the most compassionate figure of all is Rae, a man who takes his job seriously but talks to her like an adult, even confiding his own personal issues to her. For a moment, one of several in the film, these two people form a connection, something honest and authentic, a pool of water in the vast and unending desert (which Farrant continually reminds the viewer of, in long aerial vistas). Then, their own wants and needs consume them again, and they go back to being strangers, trying to make it alone.
Strangerland arrives in a standard Viva Elite Blu-ray case, featuring an image of Kidman staring out into the dust storm. Frankly, the fact that the film is about a dust storm combined with the shirt she's wearing in the photo had me thinking this was a period piece until I started watching it, so I'm not sure this is the most effective piece of artwork for the film. The package is slid inside a glossy slipcover, featuring the same artwork.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 2.39.1 1080p AVC and with a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack, Strangerland looks and sounds excellent. The first thing one will notice is that black levels are quite heavy on the picture, but there's a sense that these thick, often impenetrable shadows are not an example of crush, but an intentional part of the cinematography, as the slide from a brighter area into these inky areas is quite smooth. Colors are very carefully managed, with a bronze brown dirt being a common tone, but other scenes display a striking blue moonlight, or catch the colors of a person's clothing with a striking accuracy and saturation. Fine detail is excellent, and the film has a nice grainy look as well.
Sound-wise, the music and effects in Strangerland are often unique and unexpected, with the film diving from the howl of the windstorm to eerie, suspicious silence at other times. The music is often haunting and strange, and all of this is captured with a nice precision on the film's high-def soundtrack. Dialogue has the authentic acoustic ring of living rooms and the inside of cars, and the Australian outback is full of strange and terrifying noises. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles are also provided.
Two making-of featurettes are included. "The Cast" (8:23) is a weird one because only Joseph Fiennes and some of the supporting cast appear to have been interviewed specifically for the piece, leaving others to talk about Hugo Weaving and Nicole Kidman (who only appears for a moment, in a piece recorded during a press junket). The other, "The Story" (5:36), plays out a bit more naturally given the presence of Farrant, the writers, and producers, but in any case, both pieces are on the clip-heavy side and don't really delve much beneath the surface.
Trailers for Kidnapping Mr. Heineken, The World Made Straight, Good People, and The Iceman play before the main menu and are accessible under the special features. No trailer for Strangerland is included.
Strangerland is an unconventionally subtle and low-key film, one which offers great emotional journeys but minimal story development, something that the average viewer may find frustrating. However, the real meat of Strangerland lies in Kidman, Fiennes, Weaving, and others' excellent performances, which work together in concert to form a tapestry of human tragedy and healing. Recommended.
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