'The Strange Ones': Film Review

Courtesy of SXSW
A mystery that's less than the sum of its parts.
1/5/2018

A camping trip is not what it seems in a psychological suspense drama starring Alex Pettyfer and James Freedson-Jackson.

With their first feature, the ambitious and exceptionally well-crafted The Strange Ones, directors Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein demonstrate an undeniable mastery of mood. The atmosphere of disquiet that they drum up casts a spell, without question, but one that serves the story only to a point. However nuanced and artful, the nightmarish unease is laid on so thick that, in combination with the cryptic narrative, it gradually turns to murk.

The film's expressionistic exploration of trauma and identity centers on a teen boy who's either a runaway or an abductee, and whose traveling companion might or might not be his older brother. Some will be intrigued by the head-trip mystery, others irritated by the drama's pile-up of feints and elisions.

The indie will follow its Oscar-qualifying run with a Dec. 7 bow on DirecTV, and is scheduled for an early-2018 theatrical release, when its inclusion on John Waters' top 10 list for 2017 could boost box office.

Expanding the directors' 2011 short film of the same name, Radcliff's screenplay essentially splits the story into two halves. The first revolves around a road trip; the second, more elliptical section, deals with its repercussions. A sense of dread and emergency dominates from the get-go, drawing the viewer in but also setting a baseline that ultimately defuses the movie's intended jolts.

At the wheel of the station wagon is a scruffy, intense twentysomething (Alex Pettyfer). Riding shotgun, when he's not sleeping in the backseat, is a shell-shocked teen, Sam (James Freedson-Jackson, of Cop Car). In the rearview mirror is a fatal house fire. When the boy introduces himself to strangers as Jeremiah, the lie is obvious. Just as blatantly false is the duo's assertion that they're brothers heading to the woods for a leisurely camping trip. Though the exact nature of their relationship isn't clear for much of the story, the idea that something is very, very off is all but spelled out in neon.

As the film shifts time and place, filtered through Sam's perspective, Freedson-Jackson shifts from vulnerable to shockingly precocious, and back again to a childish naïveté. His largely flat-affect performance, which received a special jury citation at SXSW, is unsettling, a combination of astutely played moments, merely blank ones and an excess of close-ups.

With more seasoned deftness and restraint — and a sometimes wobbly American accent — Pettyfer (Elvis & Nixon) exudes a disturbing mix of violence, tenderness, sexual menace and allure. A sickening wariness infects the two main characters' every exchange, and in the early going there's a mildly gripping uncertainty over who's in control and who's manipulating whom. But however strong the cinematic ambience, the suspense factor dwindles precipitously as the storyline fragments.

Even while the narrative falters, cinematographer Todd Banhazi's masterful compositions distill an affecting essence from the rural New York state locations. Beyond the woods and the country roads, the drama delves into such unexpected locales as an off-season motel and a work camp for teens. The former is run by a flirtatious young woman, the latter by an affably no-nonsense older man — well played, respectively, by Emily Althaus (Orange Is the New Black) and character actor Gene Jones (No Country for Old Men).

The directors use both sequences to heighten elements of doubt and imbalance. But the mystery over what's happening to Sam and how much of it he understands loses its hold — first as the plot enters an explanatory phase, and then as it doubles down, unpersuasively, on its skewed, subjective angle.

Addressing such serious matters as abuse and mental health, Radcliff and Wolkstein deliver effective moments of horror and, to a lesser extent, insight. A crucial ingredient in realizing the feature's dark spiral of a dream state is the haunting score by Brian McOmber (Krisha, It Comes at Night), one of the best composers working in film today. His flute-forward theme quotes motifs from Gene Moore's music for the immortal B movie Carnival of Souls, in certain ways an apt point of reference.

Yet as assured as the filmmaking is, and as much as it announces a talented helming duo, its mode of emphatic understatement makes for an overly arduous viewing experience, and one with diminishing returns. After stripping away all the low-key mannerisms and would-be frissons, a viewer is likely to respond with a shrug of agreement when Freedson-Jackson's character complains that he "can't tell if it's, like, real or a dream. Or whatever."

Production companies: Stay Gold Features, Adastra Films, Relic Pictures, Archer Gray, Gamechanger Films, Storyboard Entertainment
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Cast: Alex Pettyfer, James Freedson-Jackson, Emily Althaus, Gene Jones, Melanie Nicholls-King, Olivia Wang, Owen Campbell, Tobias Campbell, Birgit Huppuch, Will Blomker
Directors: Lauren Wolkstein, Christopher Radcliff
Screenwriter: Christopher Radcliff

Story by: Christopher Radcliff, Lauren Wolkstein
Producers: Sebastien Aubert, Michael Prall, Eric Schultz, Shani Geva, Daniela Taplin Lundberg
Executive producers: Anne Carey, Paul Finkel, Ozo Jaculewicz, Mynette Louie, Jason Potash
Director of photography: Todd Banhazi
Production designer: Danica Pantic
Costume designer: Mitchell Travers
Editors: Christopher Radcliff, Lauren Wolkstein
Composer: Brian McOmber
Casting director: Jessica Daniels

Rated R, 82 minutes

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