The best thing about film festivals is that it allows us to experience new directors, non-studio films, and the potential for great storytelling with the potential to sweep you off your feet. First-time feature film director Kim Farrant is quick to sweep us into a world that isn’t a happy place, with a family overcome by public ridicule and their shame. Strangerland is a heightened and emotional look at the breakdown of a family from the inside out. Farrant’s debut is a mixture of hollow emptiness and sound storytelling that breaks down characters without trying to rebuild what it so intentionally breaks.
Catherine (Nicole Kidman) and Matthew Parker (Joseph Fiennes) have just moved to a small, isolated town in the Australian outback. The reasons surrounding their relocation is a mystery that is slowly unraveled after their sexually rebellious teenage daughter Lily (Maddison Brown) and younger son Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton) disappear on the eve of a dust storm. The couple, who have deep-rooted marital issues, begin working with Detective David Rae (Hugo Weaving). But they find that the new town they sought refuge in isn’t the safe haven they thought it would be and the secrets they keep from each other is only working to create a dark hole where their family used to be.
Most plots involving some kind of mystery wind up fizzling about halfway through, but Farrant keeps it up and treats it like unwrapped presents at Christmas, just waiting to be opened one by one. The film’s plot and characters are secluded, much like the town they now live in. Isolated from each other and the secrets they hide, Farrant uses the disappearance of the kids to allow us to see beyond the veil and into the hearts and minds of Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes’s characters. The two actors succeed in creating sympathy and, on some level, a strange hatred toward them. They both react very differently to everything that’s happening, and while their actions are suspect, the actors’ portrayals and emotions are visceral in nature, raw, and almost animalistic.
The cinematography is fantastic. It screams desolation and the constant brooding skies, leeching sunlight, and lack of any bright color scheme sets the perfect tone and backdrop for a film that is dark and as angst-ridden as its teenage character. The pacing could have suffered a lot from the embedded mystery plot the film carries itself upon, but since it doesn’t rely on it solely, the film moves leisurely without ever straying into the land of boredom. The character development flourishes slowly but surely, although the script could have given more time throughout to develop Hugo Weaving’s detective character, who is just as interesting as Kidman and Fiennes.
Ultimately, Strangerland is a journey into the unknown. Its story carries the air of mystery, leaving some things undiscovered and relies on the characters to drive the story. Suspicion plays a big game in the film, leading us to start believing things like a lost wanderer believes hallucination-induced images. The film is dark, despondent, and hopeless, creating something new to learn at every turn. It occasionally winds down here and there, but the intrigue and the character interactions keep it from dipping too low. With strong performances throughout and a story that is solidly told, we have a lot to look forward to from Kim Farrant.