A quick look through some of the most successful Australian films and television series in recent years proves that there aren't many things our industry loves – or does well – more than true crime dramas. From 'Underbelly' to 'Animal Kingdom', it seems we can't get enough. 'The Stranger', the new film from sophomore talent Thomas M. Wright, is such an impressive addition to the canon that so long as the genre is in hands as capable as his own, a new onslaught of crime is more than welcome on Australian screens.
Based loosely on the horrific 2003 abduction and murder of Daniel Morcombe and the following Kate Kyriacou book 'The Sting', 'The Stranger' centres on the cat-and-mouse chase between undercover officer Mark (Joel Edgerton, TV's 'Obi Wan') and prime suspect Henry Teague (played with an impressive Australian accent by Sean Harris, 'The Green Knight'). Henry is a loner desperate to belong, and soon gets pulled into what he thinks is an enticing underworld of arms dealing for a series of Mark's "bosses"; however, as Henry's walls fall down and the investigation inches closer to a confession, so too does Mark's mental stability.
'The Stranger' is Thomas M. Wright's second film, after 2018's criminally underseen but critically acclaimed 'Acute Misfortune', and here he hones his craft of dissecting the psychological and parasocial relationships between volatile men to absolute perfection. Henry might (potentially) be the more dangerous one in the duo, but it's Mark who feels prone to a complete undoing at any second. The toll of his undercover work is seen bleeding into not only his home life, but literally into the bleak fabric of the film, where gloomy, shadow-filled cinematography and a pulsating score only contribute to Mark's claustrophobia. Despite the film being bookended with a voiceover of Mark reminding himself to breathe, it would not be surprising if audiences do very little themselves. I've always felt far more on edge when watching Australian thrillers – the accents hit too close to home for me - and both Edgerton and Harris play their characters with such naturalism that not only do they feel like real people, it only adds to the chilling nature of the film.
Despite the film being bookended with a voiceover of Mark reminding himself to breathe, it would not be surprising if audiences do very little themselves.
Of course, with every deep dive into a true crime case, there comes the big questions of ethics and how, if at all, should these stories be told. Despite reaching out to Morcombe's parents years before the film went into production, their refusal to have anything to do with the project led to the fictionalisation of the case's details, as well as refusing to show a person on screen to play the murder victim out of respect. It follows in a similar vein to last year's 'Nitram', wherein the actual massacre that the film's protagonist causes occurs moments after the final frame of the film. However, where that film treads its thematic waters, 'The Stranger' has more on its mind than just exploring how the consciousness fractures to the point of hurting innocent lives around it; it's also an indictment on the federal and state police forces in our country. Mark and his colleagues are clearly the moral compass of the film, but the means through which they attempt to seek justice are critiqued by Wright just as much as the violent people they are trying to apprehend.
While it doesn't seek to shatter the framework of crime dramas before it, 'The Stranger' is incredibly unsettling and truly one of the best offerings from the Australian film industry in years.