' ' Cinema Romantico: Strangerland

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


Set in the intimidating Australian outback, where heat pulverizes and dust storms beckon, “Strangerland’s” title would seem to emblemize the plight of the Parker family, who as the film opens have moved to a nowhere hamlet for vague reasons that become clear when Catherine (Nicole Kidman) and Matthew’s (Joseph Fiennes) two children, fifteen year old Lily (Maddison Brown) and her younger brother Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton), disappear. What follows is a curious hybrid of an elemental procedural in the vein of “Prisoners” and the esoteric atmospherics of “Picnic at Hanging Rock.” If it leans toward the latter as it reaches the conclusion, it tends more toward the former throughout, which makes for a curious experience where a deliberate pace is at odds with the urgency of the quest. Still, it works, if only because the search eventually comes beside the point as “Strangerland” transforms into a compelling nightmare where a mother tries following her daughter into the same ineffable void.

The film is rife with red herrings in the form of otherwise well-acted supporting characters, mere pieces in an Agatha Christie-ish puzzle meant to drum up drama and draw out suspense. Once we get the obligatory bad vibes of the Parker household out of the way, we are introduced to a strapping lothario at a skate park with an ominous tattoo who is sweet on Lily. We meet the Parkers’ aboriginal house painter, Burtie (Meyne Wyatt), who is also sweet on Lily. He doubles as the son of the woman dating Detective Rae (Hugo Weaving) who is tasked with leading the search to find the missing kids, a conflict of interest that is addressed without any genuine follow-through. There is also Lily’s former teacher in another town with whom she had an illicit relationship, the same guy Matthew beat to within an inch of his life, and this streak of anger in Lily’s father even seems to peg dad as suspicious. It could be anyone!

Who knows, and I’m not entirely sure director Kim Farrant even cares. After all, the movie shows us Lily and Tommy striking out of their own volition, a moment seen from the vantage point of Matthew who merely stands back and lets it happen. Why is never precisely explicated, at least not until the end, a dishonest withholding of information intended to make us go “hmmmmm.” Yet in and of itself the moment seems to suggest something more. Tommy is shown “walking” as the movie opens, at night, all alone, and though his parents scold him they also seem lax in doing much to stop him, as if admitting whatever their children need to walk the straight and narrow isn’t something they can provide.

Frankly, Tommy isn’t much more than a plot device, made to vanish and then used at another point in the film to theoretically kick up the suspense an extra notch. And the character of Matthew disappears down the rabbit hole of rage, as if the movie doesn’t know quite what to do with hm. Catherine, however, is “Strangerland’s” spirit animal, and Kidman, as Kidman will, goes for broke in a wildly affecting performance of an unnerved mother made to square with the fact that she may well have passed onto Lily the very genes that would have prompted her daughter to just up and walk out.

While Lily gets little screen time, defined by a bit of conveniently backstory-laden dialogue and a mouth-breather on the phone who calls her a naughty word, we still get to know her quite well, and that’s because Farrant draws Catherine as Lily. More than once, daughter is referenced as being a chip off her mom’s apparently promiscuous block. As she unravels, Catherine indulges in seemingly emotion-free physical cravings, with her husband and other people, an evocation of that naughty word Lily is called.

In one scene, Catherine desperately ransacks Lily’s room for clues, coming upon a diary. She sits down on her daughter’s bed and combs through it, and the way Kidman positions herself, legs curled up, sitting in a bed that’s too small for her in that colorfully decorated room, she is essentially reverting to childlike behavior. Later, she puts on Lily’s shirt, turns up her music, and when Burtie turns up at the door, an extremely discomforting sequence of sorta-seduction follows. It’s like she's trying to will her daughter back to life in the form of herself, and even if its conveyance in this sequence is almost too literal, Kidman evinces it with such a bonkers emotionalism that it’s difficult not to feel the very real pain bubbling beneath her breakdown. Wherever she went, Lily’s not coming back. In her own way, neither is Catherine.

1 comment:

Candice Frederick said...

ugh. this film is so messy, and completely pointless like you mentioned.