The Australian Outback is a favorite crucible for filmmakers – its sun-scorched expanses are like a skeleton of stone and dust, an angry terrain, devoid of life or any of the resources necessary to sustain it. Its barren hostility has served as the backdrop for many an immersive production, from David Michod’s relentlessly grim The Rover to George Miller’s post-apocalyptic Mad Max trilogy. Without fail, its sprawl and mystique have imbued films set around or in it with a natural dread, a sense of powerlessness against ancient, inhuman elements.
And Strangerland, Kim Farrant’s charged but deeply flawed drama about parents in crisis, makes effective use of it too. Here, the Outback functions as a creeping fever, lurking and slowly advancing, threatening to overwhelm the European outsiders who don’t belong there. And Catherine and Matthew Parker (Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes) can feel it hot against the back of their necks like some unseen predator moving in for the kill.
Farrant captures that atmosphere of escalating tension with aplomb, and certain scenes in Strangerland reverberate with an ancient energy, as if set in some long-ago shell of a civilization where all codes of ethics have been withered away by the blazing sun into something much more primal and basic. Her shots glide over the landscape as if seen from the perspective of a buzzard searching for its next meal. For 112 minutes, the film unfolds at an agonizing slow burn.
And yet, Strangerland is unquestionably the worst kind of slow burn, in that it boils away with a grim intensity that never bubbles over as it should. This is the kind of film that threatens at every moment to head down an interesting path but instead shies away, letting out any gathering steam with a long sigh. When the seeds are sown for a psychosexual study of the dynamic between struggling parents and their rapidly maturing children, the film seems at first to hold a great deal of promise. Then, the kids in question, a young boy (Nicholas Hamilton) and his sexually liberated older sister (Maddison Brown), up and vanish into thin air, and Strangerland seems set to explore the high-wire paranoia of foreigners in a strange land they suspect is attempting to tear them apart.
The problem is, Strangerland doesn’t commit to any concrete direction. Every time it seems poised to tackle an interesting question or deepen the characters in an unexpected way, the film instead shrinks back. Is the point that Catherine covets her daughter’s consummate sensuality, for the film to draw parallels between the sexual hungers of two women at disparate points in their lives? Or is it to explore the frustrating practice of the dominant male attempting – and failing – to suppress the erotic freedom of the female, out of a desire for one person to exert complete control over another’s body? Maybe it’s a parable about human self-obsession, wherein characters are too consumed by their own desires and delusions to properly view themselves as mere organisms in a harsh landscape filled with them. Or maybe it’s just a particularly searing kidnapping thriller.
The only thing that’s for certain is that writers Michael Kinirons and Fiona Seres lost whichever narrative thread they originally set out to follow. What they’ve delivered instead is a disjointed, dull picture that could have been infinitely more interesting had they ventured down any one particular rabbit hole, instead of sticking their heads down multiple.
Kidman has done some of her best work playing grieving mothers (check out Rabbit Hole) and the actress’ ability to chart slow spirals into insanity is on full display here. There’s a quaking terror in her eyes, an unnatural tension to her stance, and it makes your heart ache even as your mind still struggles to try to make sense of it all. Kidman finds striking complexity in the dynamic between her mother figure and the blossoming daughter, regarding her with a clearly conflicted mixture of affection, compassion, jealousy and even fear. And once the kids disappear, she unravels in a tragic fashion that rarely crosses the line into melodrama (the same can’t be said for the rest of the film).
Fiennes has less to work with, and he seems a little out of place as a father terrified of emasculation, but he still holds a solid chemistry with Kidman, and they’re oddly believable as a controlling rational thinker and flightier, grown-up wild child, respectively. It’s just a shame that the fine brushwork Kidman gets to do to her character are mostly passed over in favor of broad strokes for Fiennes. Hugo Weaving’s portrayal of a cop investigating the disappearances is similarly undercut by one-note characterization – if nothing else, Strangerland feels like a starring vehicle for Kidman mis-marketed as a three-hander.
As the film rolls along, and it becomes increasingly clear that the children aren’t going to just emerge from the bush unharmed, logic dictates that the film should ratchet up the tension, but Farrant makes the directorial mistake of piling on the atmosphere immediately and never exactly escalating it in a meaningful way. The tension is a lot to take in initially, but it ends up grating in a manner more tedious than dramatic. And by the time it reaches its finale, Strangerland winds up as uninviting and excruciating as an unplanned excursion into the Outback without a road map or water canteen.
Nicole Kidman delivers a harrowing and heart-wrenching performance, but the sluggish pace and scattered focus of the picture around her leaves Strangerland about as affable as its barren, sun-scorched setting.