Now on Netflix, Thomas M. Wright’s film The Stranger is both a distressing true crime drama inspired by actual events and a gripping, irresistible character study.
When Thomas M. Wright’s (Acute Misfortune) The Stranger begins, it’s hard to understand what’s going on. Two strangers named Henry (Sean Harris, of Mission: Impossible – Fallout) and Paul (Steve Mouzakis, of Clickbait) meet on a train, at nighttime, and their journey continues by car, where one of them would appear to be helping the other reach his destination. But the former is soon replaced by a third man named Mark (Joel Edgerton, of The Green Knight), who begins to drive Henry around, and we understand that the two of them are working together. Though the nature of their work is still unclear, what’s evident is that it’s not exactly legal, as newcomer Henry is introduced to his future boss, John (Alan Dukes), who sends him out on assignments as a way to put his loyalty to the test. Mark needs this job, as he doesn’t even have money to buy new clothes, worn down from a lifetime of work and carrying the scars of a past we don’t fully understand. But what he gets is a lot more than he had hoped for, as a genuine friendship is born between him and Mark, who’s also dealing with a difficult situation of his own.
Later in the film, we come to understand that there’s an even bigger picture to consider, as one of Australia’s largest police operations is taking place in the background. Our characters are not only being constantly observed, but also manipulated: the police is looking for proof that would enable them to prosecute their number one suspect. As all of this happens, we mainly follow Mark and Henry and get to know different sides of them, little by little, and things get even more complex. By the time we fully understand them, right at the very end, the secrets have come to the surface, but the unforgettable journey we’ve taken to reach that point will haunt us for days to come.
The Stranger ‘s real strength is that it knows exactly when to reveal each piece of the puzzle to the audience. Writer-director Thomas M. Wright delivers an unconventionally structured, slow-burning true crime drama that slowly creeps under your skin until you’re fully immersed in its universe, unable to take your eyes off the screen as you try to figure out the real nature of its compelling protagonists, whose bond is at the very core of the movie. Sean Harris and Joel Edgerton are superb, imbuying their characters with humanity and making us root for them regardless of what we find out about them. And, when the final blow eventually comes, we’re left saddened by a victory that feels more like the loss of a friend.
There is so much more to unpack in a film like The Stranger, such as the tiniest details that we may not understand at first but ultimately help make the narrative come full circle. But the movie is inspired by the 2003 abduction and murder of a 13-year-old in Queensland, and it also examines to the toll that the entire operation has on everyone involved, who get so used to pretending to be someone else while they’re undercover that they ultimately become that very same person, making the boundaries between good and evil even thinner.
The Stranger is a tense, distressing true crime drama that will keep surprising you till the end, but it’s also the wholly absorbing, irresistible character study of two men who aren’t always who they seem to be, one haunted by the demons of his past choices and the other crippled by guilt and attempting to preserve his identity while hiding in plain sight. What these characters have in common is that they’re both extremely lonely humans, and there’s much more to discover in this slow-burning film than what meets the eye, from the complexity of life to the importance of empathy and connection. Not to be missed.
The Stranger premiered at the 2022 BFI London Film Festival on October 15, 2022, and will be released globally on Netflix on October 19.
Read our list of films to watch at the London Film Festival this year.