Thomas M Wright’s atmospheric but underwhelming thriller tells of an elaborate sting operation to catch a killer in Australia.
Over 50 undercover police officers were involved in the hunt for Daniel Morcombe’s killer. The 13-year-old boy went missing from a bus stop in Queensland a few weeks before Christmas; he had been on his way to get a haircut and shop for presents for his family. It feels important to mention this information because Thomas M Wright’s psychological drama about the sting operation that eventually caught his killer is a little light on details – as tends to be the case in true crime procedurals, there’s more emphasis on the killer than his victim.
Having previously acted in Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, Wright appears to have been influenced by the murky, slow-paced world and violent that she created with Gerard Lee, and there are comparisons to be drawn between The Stranger and Justin Kurzel’s dramas about real Australian murder cases, Snowtown and Nitram.
Like Nitram, The Stranger attempts to handle the real-life case sensitively by changing names, details and focusing more on the elaborate undercover case which finally brought Morcombe’s killer to justice This withholding of information makes it a little hard to follow, particularly during time skips, and anyone not familiar with the Morcombe case and subsequent sting operation might struggle to keep up. This approach does create a dark, foreboding atmosphere – the sensation of a film as tightly wound as a violin string that might snap at any moment.
Joel Edgerton plays Mark, the undercover policeman tasked with befriending murder suspect Henry Teague (Sean Harris) in hopes of drawing out a murder confession. The operation involves multiple jurisdictions and an intricate plan to convince Teague to reveal that he is living under a different name and is in fact the man wanted for murder in Queensland. It’s sometimes difficult to follow all the twists and turns within the story, particularly given that Mark and Henry aren’t the most forthcoming of men, but both do a solid job of conveying a level of cool detachment (albeit for very different reasons).
But ultimately it’s difficult to say what exactly The Stranger is bringing to an already flooded market. There are so many films that take cases ripped from the headlines and attempt to pathologise the perpetrators – Wright is more interested in the psychological toll on the man tasked with befriending a killer, which should offer an interesting perspective, and there are some striking images within The Stranger matched by its aesthetic intensity, but the convoluted plot is withholding in a way that makes it difficult to truly connect with the story, as worthy a subject it might be.
Little White Lies is committed to championing great movies and the talented people who make them.
Published 21 May 2022
Justin Kurzel’s difficult drama about a notorious mass murderer falls into familiar pitfalls of the true crime genre.
By Lewis Gordon
The first season of Jane Campion’s crime drama offers a powerful critique of patriarchal values.