The Stranger was reviewed out of the Cannes Film Festival, where it made its world premiere.
How much would you trust a complete stranger? That’s the question The Stranger, based on a trust story, probes, beginning with a chance encounter as two men strike up a conversation on a bus. Soon enough, their stories become entwined as Henry (Sean Harris), a lone drifter with a mysterious past, befriends Paul (Steve Mouzakis), a man who might just be able to offer him the opportunity of a lifetime.
Of course, it’s not that simple, but the dimly lit bus and moody scenes that follow begin setting the stage for a brooding thriller that’s packed full of tension… even before you figure out quite what’s going on. Enter Mark (Joel Edgerton), one of Paul’s friends who has a job opportunity for Henry but it’s not strictly legal.
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Director Thomas M. Wright walks deftly through the shadows of rural Australia as both Henry and we, the audience, try to unpack what’s going on. We may know very little about Henry, but we know even less about Mark. Indeed, the first section of The Stranger pulls you into the experience as a fellow passenger, going along with Henry for the ride.
But once The Stranger has drawn you in, it pivots.
Tumbling head over heels, The Stranger soon reveals exactly what’s going on, while dramatically shifting the point of view from Henry to his new best pal, Mark. Here, Edgerton carves out one of the defining roles of his career so far.
The Stranger is loosely based on the real-life abduction of an Australian child in 2003 and the subsequent efforts of the Australian police to bring his murderer to justice. Mark, it turns out, is an undercover cop, but he’s walking a very thin line, almost losing himself as he becomes the perfect pal for Henry to confide in. Edgerton’s quiet discomfort as he slowly befriends the devil is absolutely sublime, while glimpses of the character’s real life show a very different side to the man. How he reconciles his identity is clearly a point of great pain, and Edgerton delivers this in a very subtle and natural way.
Of course, Mark is styled to look like the subject he’s undercover as, but the similarities go further, bleeding into his private life. As the unintentional side effects start to crop up, it’s clear that Mark has gone too deep. , and Edgerton’s particular brand of masculine paranoia keeps us on edge as it turns out he continually becomes more of a stranger to himself.
There are shades of Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners underlining much of the tension, albeit with a distinctly Australian twist. But what director Wright has accomplished here is nothing short of magnificent on its own.
Unsettling quick cuts keep us on our toes as we’re drip-fed details of Henry’s murky past. In fact, piecing it all together is half the fun. The use of sound is incredibly clever, too. At one point, the film’s audio noticeably shifts, becoming quite hollow… and that’s when you realize you’re hearing the scene through a hidden microphone worn by one of the officers.
There are lots of neat tricks like this throughout – slowed-down audiotapes and smash cuts that instantly reveal when someone is lying. Wright uses every tool in his arsenal to keep us on the edge of their seats, and it really works.
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Sean Harris is superbly cast as Henry, with his distinct strangeness amping up the character tenfold. That strangeness is crafted beautifully by Harris, who uses an unsettling quietness to mold Henry in the likeness of many an oddball drifter. But it’s more than that, with a hidden fury bubbling beneath the surface.
Despite Henry’s violent past, Wright makes a distinct choice to avoid any hint of blood and gore, instead focussing closely on the darkness surrounding both Henry and Mark. They may be on very different sides of the law, but there’s an unsettling likeness between the two, a likeness Mark is clearly struggling with.
The Stranger is a surprisingly complex thriller that puts a stylish twist on the formula. Edgerton brings a career-best performance alongside Harris, who deftly wields a subtle darkness. The whole thing is pulled together by some excellent style choices, and a creeping soundtrack that claws its way through every scene. Like most films based on a true story, you have to wonder how much of this is true to life. Either way, The Stranger presents a darkly realistic tale of a police sting that perhaps goes too far, and an undercover cop who struggles not to lose himself entirely.