Anyone who’s watched a film set in the Australian outback—Walkabout (1971), A Cry in the Dark (1988), Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) and even Crocodile Dundee (1986), for example—quickly learns that the Australian terrain is at once life-affirming and uninviting. It can also be downright deadly. The Australian-Irish film Strangerland, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year, plays with this duality, pushing it to represent both the continent’s desert terrain and human nature. Yet, despite all of its well-intentioned, high-minded aspirations, Strangerland is a hodgepodge that plods along at a torpid pace.
Director Kim Farrant’s first feature-length drama focuses on one couple’s emotional and psychological reactions to times of crisis and tragedy. Catherine (Nicole Kidman) and Matthew Parker (Joseph Fiennes) have two teenage children, Lily (Maddison Brown) and Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton), who disappear into the night before a massive dust storm. Although they live under the same roof, the entire family has been practically estranged, and the kids’ sudden absence pushes the couple’s already fraying relationship to the breaking point—though, the family’s situation is so dysfunctional, Catherine and Matthew don’t even realize that the children are missing until later the following day. Predictably, when Catherine learns from their school that Tommy and Lily haven’t been attending classes regularly, she chooses to blame the school’s lack of safeguards rather than take partial responsibility as a parent.
With the assistance of Detective David Rae (Hugo Weaving), the couple delves further into the disappearance, and the situation becomes more complex than anyone could have originally guessed. No one’s sure if the children are lost in the desert, if they were kidnapped, or if they left on their own accord. But, of course, there’s always more to the family’s past: The parents reluctantly reveal to Rae that Lily has run away from home before, her actions ultimately forcing the family to abscond to the desolate, fictional outback town of Nathgari, where residents are wary of the Parkers, who largely keep to themselves. With the teens gone, rumors begin to circulate; though she’s only 15, Lily’s sexual forwardness towards men and boys, as well as her explicit diary, make it easy to surmise what the scandal entailed.
Time is running out for the teens if they’re stranded in the desert. It’s a fact that Farrant and cinematographer JP Dillon visually communicate—over and over again. While it’s understandable that the Australian landscape is catnip for cameras, one or two aerial establishing shots of sunrises/sunsets can sufficiently hammer the point home, but Farrant refuses to trust in the audience’s ability to comprehend the point without numerous, similar transitions that only draw out Strangerland’s already-sluggish momentum.
With each passing hour, Catherine and Matthew respond in their own ways to the stress: He withdraws from his wife and the community members who are sympathetic, his frustration manifesting occasionally through violence, especially since he has a complicated relationship with his daughter, resenting her hypersexual ways and blaming her for their exile to the outback. Meanwhile, Catherine, her daughter’s kindred spirit, seeks out human contact, mostly from the men around her, and acts out sexually to compensate somehow for her missing children.
Kidman’s portrayal of a woman slowly losing her sanity in the face of another kind of devastating loss is compelling enough to shove the film’s plot forward, as are her dynamic scenes with Weaving, who plays a character bearing a familial tragedy of his own. But it’s never quite enough: Most characters lack any depth past their small town stereotyping, and Matthew’s aloofness—his simmering anger towards his daughter’s sexuality and disinterest in his wife’s advances hint at something much possibly deeper and darker—is never explored. Instead, Fiennes has two modes: brooding and fighting.
The script, written by Michael Kinirons and Fiona Seres, awkwardly shifts from psychological drama to indulging in elements of a mystery procedural, culture and class conflict, and Aboriginal mysticism. When a child in the film recounts the story of the Rainbow Serpent Ngatyi, who swallowed two women in the outback, the message is clear: Some elders in the town chock up the Parker children’s disappearance to some sort of payback for white colonialism. But all Aboriginal history, beliefs and tensions are summarily, even hypocritically glossed over. In fact, none of Strangerland‘s introduced themes are carried to fruition—which is understandable: What with all the aerial establishing shots of sunrises/sunsets, there’s just little room for such things as character development or satisfying storytelling.
Director: Kim Farrant
Writers: Michael Kinirons, Fiona Seres
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Joseph Fiennes, Hugo Weaving, Meyne Wyatt, Maddison Brown, Nicholas Hamilton, Lisa Flanagan
Release Date: July 10, 2015
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.