The Stranger – Film Review

The Stranger is a crime drama from Australian actor turned writer/director Thomas M. Wright.

The film follows drifter Henry Teague (Sean Harris) as he becomes introduced to an organised crime ring. Quiet and not interested in violence, he meets Mark (Joel Edgerton) who will act as his handler. As the two work together, Henry grows fond of Mark and opens up more about his past. Little does Henry know; Mark and the entire criminal enterprise holds a secret. In truth, everything is an elaborate sting operation by the Australian police targeting Henry. Mark is an undercover cop trying to draw a confession from Henry for a horrifying crime years ago. With Mark’s sanity on the line, will the plan succeed or is it all for nothing?

The Stranger is inspired by the ‘Mr Big’ style police investigation into the 2003 disappearance of Daniel Morcombe. Although certain names have been changed, it is based off the true crime novel ‘The Sting’ by Kate Kyriacou. While there is some dramatization, the entire feature has an eerie documentary like feel to it. This is enhanced by the film’s extremely detailed and almost clinical nature at times. The Stranger alternates between police procedural and character drama with its pacing. If you know anything about the true-life investigation, it is at times haunting with the details it goes into.

Naturally, the film is extremely dark and intense as a result. For only being his second outing Wright delivers a harrowing experience. For myself some of the dramatised moments actually take away from this. Internal police conflicts between characters and arguments over red tape pop up at times. These issues may even have happened however they come off as ‘Hollywoodisms’ here. Attempts to perhaps ramp up the emotion of the film when it is unnecessary.

Also, for it to be such an in depth look at this overall investigation, there is no real epilogue. Whether it be a post film text or otherwise, the lack of a denouement to the story is bothersome. Not all plots must be tied up in a neat little bow but this being “based on a true story” I think is a special case. Yes, this is a film about the investigation itself, but the investigation is meaningless without a pay-off.

Structurally another odd choice is for the film to partially feature a split timeline narrative. I loved seeing the timelines converge but I already knew something of the Morcombe case. This form of story delivery is something which may cause confusion, again unnecessarily.

Joel Edgerton as always delivers an amazing performance as the deep undercover Mark. Much of the film is focused on the effects the job is having on his psyche. I felt perhaps a little too much but that doesn’t take away from how great Edgerton is in the role. But of the two stars, Sean Harris is truly the most captivating on screen. In a role which is both understated yet at the same time terrifying, Harris manages to make Henry Teague someone we can feel sorry for in one moment and be disgusted with the next. 

Interestingly, the leads lack any chemistry, but this actually enhances both performances; Edgerton as Mark who is is actually scared of Teague’s character, and Harris as Teague who wants a mate to confide in. It is a one-sided odd couple friendship from hell. Finally, Jada Albert deserves much recognition for her role as Detective Rylett. Much of her part is delivering context for the crime for which Teague is accused of and investigating his alibi. She does this with so much rage and sadness under the surface, it highlights how little fake drama is needed this film.

The Stranger is one hell of a powerful crime drama. If there is a correct way to adapt a tragic story with both impact and respect – this, is it. With amazing performances and a heavy tone, Thomas M. Wright gives us one of the best Australian films of the year.

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