When Henry Teague (Sean Harris) meets Paul Emery (Steve Mouzakis) during a lengthy journey, the two forge a tentative friendship. But Henry, a suspect in an Australian missing persons case, is unaware that Paul is an undercover agent who leads him into an elaborate sting operation where an agent masquerading as Mark Frame (Joel Edgerton) suffers the psychological consequences of getting too close to "The Stranger."
Laura's Review: B+
Writer/director Thomas M. Wright’s true crime suspense thriller is a collection of shattered fragments, from its crosscutting among various story and timelines to the shattered psyches of its protagonists, shattered lives of a young victim and his family whose trauma remains off-screen and the literal shattered glass which punctuates two scenes. Wright fuses everything together with a foreboding tone and two strong performances mirroring each other in frightening ways.
Events are roughed in, the story gradually crystallizing as Wright revisits scenes in more detail. We’re introduced to two seemingly sketchy characters, Paul attaining assistance in selling a car, then offering connections for work that hardly sounds above board. Henry is lured in, Mark appearing at a meeting point without Paul to take him to meet local contact Gary. Henry is assured he’ll be taken care of as long as he honest with them and proves himself capable.
It’s a while before we realize that Mark is a cover name for an undercover detective, a divorced man who shares custody of a son (Cormac Wright) around the same age as the missing boy. (The victim here is called James Liston, but Wright based his screenplay on the 2003 event described in Kate Kyriacou's book ‘The Sting: The Undercover Operation That Caught Daniel Morcombe's Killer.’) We’ll also splinter off to follow the investigative efforts of Kate Rylett (Jada Alberts) as she tries to poke holes in Teague’s (in real life, Brett Peter Cowan) alibi, the man having admitted to driving through the underpass where the boy was taken because he was aware of a nearby security camera.
The sting operation itself is a marvel, its scope sure to amaze U.S. audiences, but while Wright lays it all out in fascinating fashion, it is the central relationship which is most riveting. Both men are bearded, Mark gathering his long hair in a ponytail, a look Henry eventually copies. Harris is at turns pitiable and terrifying, needy and creepy, his honest desire for a friend curdling into something unsavory. When his appearance is criticized as unprofessional, he presents himself in new clothes like a puppy to Mark, eager for approval. Taking the man to his house one night ‘because the missus isn’t home at the moment’ (and we’ll hear her give chilling testimony to Rylett), Harris dances to ‘Trojan Blue,’ the joyous smile crinkling his face directed at his friend subsiding as his moves become more seductive. On the flip side, Edgerton maintains an outwardly chummy, huggy acceptance of the man as we see him becoming more and more anxious at home with his son, a work psychiatric session showing the strain. Also strong is Alan Dukes as John, the presumed ‘head’ of the criminal operation Henry thinks he is a part of.
Cinematographer Sam Chiplin gives us a world of dark roads unfurling along dividing lines accented by Oliver Coates’s (“Aftersun”) ominous score. Production designer Leah Popple counters with nondescript hotel rooms and restaurants where shady men meet in daylight. The film’s concludes in nature, but even here a sickness lurks, our stomachs dropping when one man within a long line of orange-suited forensics investigators crawling along the forest floor slowly raises his hand. “The Stranger” is another fine example of Australia’s cinematic reckoning with its dark underbelly.
Robin's Review: B
Two strangers, Mark (Joel Edgerton) and Henry (Sean Harris), form a friendship. But neither is whom he appears to be and each is operating under a different agenda. Meanwhile, a state-wide search for a missing boy will reveal those agendas in “The Stranger.”
I was struck by the Australian response, in this based on true life story, to a missing boy and possible murder victim and compare it to how it would be handled here in America. There, an army of searchers was committed to doing whatever it takes to solve the mystery. Here, it would be excuses and, probably, lies. But I digress.
Based on a real case in Queensland, Australia from the early 2000s, you will need to pay close attention and listen intently to follow the heavy Aussie accents and characters’ muttering – I suggest using the closed caption option on your TV. You will be happy you did.
There is a lot going on in this intelligent crime drama that is more about a friendship (a strange one at that), with the missing child almost handled as background. There are many characters and their positions in the story are sometimes vague. It is the acting that is the draw, though, with two very solid and very different characters studies by Edgerton and Harris. The mystery is always kept to your attention and the police procedural that results is fascinating.
“The Stranger” debuted in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and is streaming on Netflix.