The Stranger review: A glacial, gripping crime thriller
Ivan | On 19, Oct 2022
Director: Thomas M Wright
Cast: Joel Edgerton, Sean Harris, Steve Mouzakis, Jada Alberts
Ever since The Gift, Joel Edgerton has been an intriguing film talent, with the ability to do what you don’t expect both professionally off screen and dramatically on screen. That unpredictability remains rivetingly true in The Stranger, which is even more impressive given that the thriller is inspired by real events.
Taking its inspiration from one of the largest manhunts in Australian history, the film follows Henry (Sean Harris), an ex-prisoner who gets a promising offer of work from Mark (Edgerton), a mid-level criminal with his own concerns. Their connection comes about through a chance encounter with Paul (Steve Mouzakis). Any one of these men could be the stranger of the title, and therein lies the fun of Thomas M Wright’s debut – although “fun” is the wrong word for this glacial, gripping tale.
Portent sets in from the opening frame, with everything on the screen bathed in black except for the faces of two strangers on a bus. In some ways, we never get to know either of them, as the film eases us into a world of assumed names and carefully guarded motivations. We gradually become aware of a police presence in the background, and that what we’re watching somehow ties into a case involving a long-missing child – a victim who, like their parents and family, remains a distant, unknown cypher.
But we’re not left to sit on the detached sidelines; Thomas M Wright’s direction immerses us in the uncertainty experienced by everyone on screen, with DoP Sam Chiplin steeping everything in a sickly tint and cutaways to remote landscapes and billowing smoke keeping us perpetually on edge. Amplified by impeccably unnerving sound design, the tension lies in the gulf between knowing and not knowing – the mystery falling into place relies not only on us finding out small details about what these men have done but also in what they find out about each other. We share in the frustration of information being painstakingly unearthed, in the fear of truths being found out and in the weariness of secrets being kept.
Harris and Edgerton are exceptional, their performances telling us all we need to know at any given moment. Harris’ darting eyes are chillingly at odds with his still face and grizzled beard, while Edgerton’s anxious, alert energy is hidden behind eyes that have become deadened with exhaustion. Together, they’re a horribly watchable duo, their faces almost blurring together as they capture the challenge of trying to empathise with someone who may have done unspeakably terrible things.
We observe and make connections as we move from crime scene to hotel room to bus stop to empty forest, but much of the runtime is spent simply sitting in a car with them. You’re never quite sure what either of them will do next – and, you suspect, neither are they. It’s at that point you realise you’ve been holding your breath for the past hour.
This review was originally published during the 2022 London Film Festival.