The Stranger Review: A Bleak And Subdued Australian Thriller Starring Joel Edgerton [Cannes]

Featuring great performances from its two incredibly bearded leading men, and bosting a twist that offers something truly unique to the true crime genre, "The Stranger" takes loose inspiration from a true story to deliver a bleak yet subdued thriller. Sadly, the film banks everything on this reveal, which recontextualizes everything that came before but deflates all the tension. Still, this harrowing story about the darkness hiding behind the pleasantries of strangers brings to mind films like "Prisoners" and "Zodiac," and could break big within the true crime fandom.

The first half of the movie focuses on Sean Harris' Henry Teague, a pleasant enough fellow who likes to keep to himself, yet is easy to open up to strangers — to the point where a chance encounter with a friendly man he meets on the road encourages him to embrace a life of crime for no particular reason. As he rises through the ranks, he finds that maybe you shouldn't open up to people you just met.

A fantastic Joel Edgerton

Actor-turned-director Thomas M. Wright (Jane Campion's "Top of the Lake") makes his sophomore feature all about mood, rather than tension. When Paul (Steve Mouzakis), the man who introduces Henry to the criminal organization, is suddenly sent away with no explanation, we are meant to wonder whether he is truly going on a work trip, or if he's gained a one-way ticket to Belize. Yet "The Stranger" doesn't really try to build up to that reveal, as it always keeps the information on a need-to-know basis, only letting the audience in at the last possible minute.

Indeed, the film completely changes tone and even genre about halfway through its 117-minute runtime. It pulls the rug from under the audience and changes perspectives from the gentle Henry to the grizzled and reserved Mark (Joel Edgerton), Henry's new point of contact with the organization once Paul leaves. Edgerton's suave but temperamental informer quickly strikes a strange friendship with Henry — it helps that trusting Mark was Paul's parting word of wisdom to Henry. This friendship becomes the key to the film, with the audience slowly realizing what each man keeps hidden from each other, despite acting like close pals. Edgerton has already proven to be a great and intimidating presence in films like "Animal Kingdom" and "The Gift." Here, he once again plays an enigmatic character that is welcoming to the point where you want to tell him all your secrets after a quick hello while keeping inner darkness at bay — a darkness which he lets out at home which he shares with his son, the target of his anger issues.

A new take on true crime

Wright and cinematographer Sam Chiplin really want to challenge any idea you have of the beautiful and warm vistas of Southern Australia, choosing to set nearly every scene in the pitch-black night, lit only by the yellow of the Australian plains. The sound design also helps set the mood, changing the audio mix at some points to reveal a third party listening in on conversations, or using audio cues to help the audience know when someone is lying.

In its second half, "The Stranger" places a bigger focus on its connection to a real-life case that shook Australia in the early aughts. Wright manages to use his second-half reveal in order to reach the center of the film's question of trust and strangers, of how much we are willing to accept or think about a person after just meeting them, and how our opinions are shaped in seconds without knowing the full story. This second half also shares more in common with movies like "Zodiac" or "Prisoners," but it lacks the sense of tension of either of those, as each reveal comes a little too late to make the stakes feel high. Still, Edgerton and Harris are great on screen, and both sport beards you'll be thinking about for days on end, almost as long as you might be thinking about the central reveal and how it flips the true crime genre on its head.

/Film rating: 7 out of 10

"The Strangers" premiered as part of the Cannes Film Festival 2022.