'Stray': Film Review

Stylish but familiar.
3/1/2019

A troubled female detective teams up with a young woman possessing hidden powers to solve a mysterious death in Joe's Sill's supernatural thriller.

Hard-boiled cop and supernatural thriller tropes are combined to effective if not terribly original effect in Joe Sill's directorial debut. The tale of an emotionally scarred female detective joining forces with a young woman to uncover the mystery behind a mysterious killing, Stray is the sort of competently made but overly familiar genre exercise that should attract its largest audiences on late-night cable. The film does, however, offer strong performances and striking visuals that compensate for its generic aspects.

The pic begins strongly, with homicide detective Murphy (Christine Woods, excellent in the sort of role more often played by middle-aged men) investigating the murder of a middle-aged woman whose severely charred body is found in an abandoned warehouse. Upon forensic examination, it's discovered that the corpse was not burned but rather is petrified, and has apparently been dead for 1,000 years.

It seems unlikely, considering that the victim was in the company of her elderly mother (Takayo Fischer) and teenage daughter Nori (Karen Fukuhara, Suicide Squad) just the previous day. Interrogating the two relatives, Murphy suspects that the old woman knows more than she's telling. So she decides to hang out with the orphaned Nori in an attempt to gather more information.

The mystery grows even stronger when Murphy discovers that Nori has supernatural powers that emerge, Carrie-style, when the young woman is emotionally stressed. And considering the circumstances that brought them together, Nori's stress levels are, not surprisingly, fairly high. Murphy is battling inner demons herself, self-medicating with heavy drinking and a habit of getting fresh tattoos. When we're clued into the tragic event in her past that led her to her current fractured emotional state and ended her marriage to a fellow detective (Ross Partridge), it explains her fast-forming bond to the vulnerable Nori.

Depending more on ominous mood than sudden jolts, the slow-burn thriller feels longer than its brief running time. The ultimate revelation of the nature of Nori's powers, involving the appearance of a mysterious young man (Japanese singer/actor Miyavi (Kong: Skull Island, Unbroken), proves underwhelming, even if it does offer the opportunity for more elaborate if still fairly low-grade CGI effects. That the plot resolution hinges on a lengthy monologue is indicative of the overall clumsiness of the screenplay co-written by JD Dillard and Alex Theurer.

On the other hand, director of photography Greg Cotten brings some impressive visual panache to the film, infusing the proceedings with a richly dark color palette that enhances the portentous atmosphere, and Trevor Doherty's subtly creepy music score is also effective. The performances are first rate; besides Woods' solid turn as the emotionally scarred cop, Fukuhara is movingly vulnerable as the frightened Nori and Miyavi takes full advantage of his natural pop star charisma as the long-haired young man who holds the key to the mystery.

Production companies: Diablo Entertainment, Engineer
Distributor: Screen Media Films
Cast: Christine Woods, Karen Fukuhara, Miyavi, Ross Partridge, Takayo Fischer, Saki Miata
Director: Joe Sill
Screenwriters: JD Dillard, Alex Theurer
Producers: Eric B. Fleischman, Sean Tabibian, JD Dillard, Alex Theurer
Executive producers: Shaul Dina, Dustin Diouhy, Shawn Ebra, Justin Farajzadeh, David Hakimfar, Gady Gabrielzadeh, David Tahour, Cyrus & Ilana Zahabian
Director of photography: Greg Cotton
Production designer: Tye Whipple
Editor: Ien Chi
Composer: Trevor Doherty
Costume designer: Joanna David
Casting: Lindsey Weissmueller

87 minutes