The Strange Ones is a solid movie on first watch that becomes a seriously good movie on second watch. Maybe that’s a poor framework for an endorsement, but the film is more than the shock of its climax: You’re not toughing it out for 70 minutes just for 10 minutes of gratification, here, because The Strange Ones works both prior to and after directing duo Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein lay their narrative’s secrets out on the table and invite audiences to revisit everything they’ve seen happen on screen for the last hour and change. Nine times out of ten when movies do this, they’re cheating, but The Strange Ones never fleeces us. Post-screening retrospection is just another low-key pleasure to gain from watching it.
We begin in a house that turns into a kiln, then transition to a backroads drive filled with haunted idyl and uncertainty. Both segments are anchored by a boy, Sam (James Freedson-Jackson), who we meet in the house and who ends up in the car, driven by Nick (Alex Pettyfer), whose exact role in Sam’s life is a mystery. He could be Sam’s brother, or guardian, or his jailor, or worse. Radcliff and Wolkstein provide the audience with enough evidence to form theories and draw conclusions, and The Strange Ones establishes an atmosphere of dangerous immediacy from the outset: The fire the film starts on transitions to a gas station, where Sam and Nick exchange muted glances with each other, and Sam replies to a text from a friend (“r u dead?”) with the bluntest lie possible (“yes”) before tossing his phone in the trash.
We know Sam and Nick are on the run, but the questions are from what (or whom) and why? Such questions are integral to any good mystery road trip film—think The Hitch-Hiker, Duel and Kalifornication—but The Strange Ones uses its questions to actively needle us from our comfort zone. That said, their film isn’t about gimmickry and pretense; it’s just about good, economical storytelling layered over an elastic theme.
“Are you having fun?” Nick asks Sam as they sit for a bite at a roadside diner. “I kind of feel weird,” Sam tells him, describing his fitful sleeping and how he can’t stop thinking about The Strange Ones’ opening sequence. By then, we know his getaway with Nick isn’t just about distancing himself from whatever crime they’ve committed. It’s about distancing himself from unspoken trauma, and reconsidering that trauma in the present practically puts the kid in a trance. But Nick snaps him out of it by offering him a piece of the American dream, the chance to remake himself not by forgetting his past but by pretending the past never happened. “None of it exists,” he says, “not unless you want it to.”
And then he makes his coffee cup disappear. This little sleight of hand, of course, is not where The Strange Ones gets its title from, but for a brief moment we’re treated to the thought that this is a supernatural odyssey of a sort. Radcliff and Wolkstein’s approach to editing and filming lends an eerie cadence to their picture, looping from day to night to morning with a tempo that’s as natural as it is thoroughly spooky. It should spook us out, mind you, because even after the magic dissipates from the film we still have to contend with the unrest left in its wake. Sam and Nick may not be warlocks, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t hiding truths, whether heartbreaking, lawbreaking or just plain old unsavory.
Standing in the center of The Stranges Ones’ ominous events are Freedson-Jackson and Pettyfer, two actors bearing the burden of excess restraint. They’re tasked with making Sam and Nick into real, tangible, empathetic characters using the most minimal backgrounds possible. It’s a big ask, especially for a young actor like Freedson-Jackson, whose only major roles to date have been in Cop Car and Jessica Jones, but he shoulders his responsibility with impressive ease: We can read him like a book, in particular through his eyes, but we’re not sure exactly what his story is regardless. There’s innocence in his work, but not purity. Seeing him play the part once is arresting enough. Seeing him play the part again on a follow-up viewing is downright revealing. The same should be said of the movie at large.
Director: Christopher Radcliff, Lauren Wolkstein
Writer: Christopher Radcliff
Starring: James Freedson-Jackson, Alex Pettyfer, Gene Jones, Marin Ireland, Emily Althaus
Release Date: January 5, 2018
Boston-based pop culture critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist, WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon, Thrillist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.