This Irish Australian co-production certainly has a perfectly fine premise. Strangerland tells the story of a couple, Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes, whose two teenage children, a quiet boy and an older, vivacious teen girl, go missing during a dust storm in a remote Australian town.
The audience is treated to strong references to both Walkabout and Picnic at Hanging Rock but whereas the latter carefully created a dreamlike atmosphere that suited its disquietingly ambiguous story, this feels like a muddled procedural. This is partially a thriller, partially an art house flick and partially the kind of movie where a magic black person tells us ‘sometimes kids go missing in this town’. That particular insinuation, or maybe it’s meant to be a revelation, comes at the start of the third act, unheralded and is never mentioned again. The script either overreached or was undercooked. Initially our characters are told they have two, perhaps three days to find the missing children. They spend what seems to be about a full week having meltdowns, chasing false leads and arguing with one another before being told they now have twenty four hours.
The two main characters are unlikeable from the off and they/the script withhold information from us for too long and to no purpose. Time spent when we could be getting to empathise with them is spent making their motivations pointlessly mysterious. Joseph Fiennes is eye-rollingly horrible in his twitchy, ‘everything up to eleven’ performance. Nicole Kidman is an actress with a great ability to hint at an inner life and if she fails here she at least goes down swinging. The performance to really admire is Hugo Weaving’s. As a small town cop with divided loyalties he projects an air of despair and nobility at once, even when acting in very un-noble ways. He plays someone resigned to manning their post but with few illusions about what that entails.
The film has one other, non Hugo Weaving, thing going for it. It isn’t afraid to go in to dark, sexual territory as we see the players enter spirals of confusion, anger and guilt. One scene, in particular, is affecting, cringey and almost funny all at once.