November 11, 2022 | CULTURE | By Frances Thyer | Illustration by Liz White
Amongst a surge of films based on real life, the methods and value of depictions are increasingly being recognized and debated. Despite a range in critical reception, such as the criticism for “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” in glorifying Dahmer’s legacy and praise for “A Friend of the Family” in its dedication to victims and their families, the films themselves often follow a similar structure and style.
Tom Wright’s “The Stranger”, however, takes the best aspects of the psychological crime thriller genre whilst otherwise turning convention on its head.
Based on Kate Kyriacou’s book “The Sting: The Undercover Operation That Caught Daniel Morcombe’s Killer”, “The Stranger”was inspired by the murder investigation in a child abduction case.
Henry Teague, played by Sean Harris, is a suspect in the case without sufficient evidence against him. In an effort to keep the case from going cold, an undercover cop going by the name Mark Frame, played by Joel Edgerton, invites Teague into a fake criminal ring orchestrated by the police. There, Teague is promised belonging and a large payout in hopes that he will confess to the crime committed years before.
This process is formally known as a Mr. Big operation, where undercover police orchestrate a fictitious criminal organization, seduce their suspect to join, and establish a relationship with the individual where they may confess to their crimes. Whether or not this method is useful or taxing is weighed throughout the film, which is compelling given its legality has been controversial.
Much of the film does ultimately stay true to the real events, following the high profile 2003 manhunt for the killer of a 13-year-old in Queensland, Australia.
Particularly unique to “The Stranger”is its clear intention of ambiguity. Even in the opening scenes of the film, the audience is cinematically tricked into seeing Teague as the protagonist. The two main characters are physically alike, another unusual decision in the true crime genre. While the dark lighting and obscured characters can make the narrative difficult to follow without considerable attention, the film manages to give just enough to keep its audience engaged while never revealing too much.
The dim lighting and ominous sound continuously contribute to the film’s unsettling compositions; we are often trapped inside an ill-lit car, leaving a haunting and unwanted intimacy that echoes the experience of both our protagonist and that of the abduction itself. “The Stranger” also strays from common structure where the primary victim is central by instead making the protagonist’s son a proxy through which we understand fear. The sparce yet well-paced minimalist verbose is ultimately impressive in its unconventional approach.
“The Stranger”is distinct as it removes itself from the original tragedy, both in its focus on the investigation and in the many years that had passed after the murder before the case was finally closed. The morality in separating itself from the original abduction and focusing on the relationship between criminal and cop is something the audience may have to determine for themselves; either way, the burdens of secrecy are compellingly conveyed. For protagonist Mark Frame, we see the strain of forced companionship with a monster weighing down on his relationship with his own son. The skeletons in Teague’s closet cause an intense anxiety that are echoed in the film stylistically and thematically.
“The Stranger” speaks to the burdens of undercover police work, as we see Frame’s bond with a child murderer becoming dangerous on levels much deeper than physical safety. The title of the film may refer to Frame’s unfamiliarity with Teague’s deviant psyche, or even speak to what it feels like to have to become a stranger to oneself to stay sane.
“The Stranger”is available to stream now on Netflix.