The desert heat wraps itself around the characters of “Strangerland,” set in the contemporary Australian Outback, like a heavy, scratchy shawl. The sun hangs in the eerily quiet sky; bugs dot the air; a dust storm approaches, with the inevitability of an army at wartime. In this setting, two children have disappeared: Teenage Lily (Maddison Brown) and her younger brother Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton) walked away from their home during the night. Now their parents, Catherine (Nicole Kidman) and Matthew (Joseph Fiennes), must desperately try to find them, with the help of local cop David Rae (Hugo Weaving), as the sun beats down.
Directed by Kim Farrant, “Strangerland” is an uneven but often mesmerizing film with a mood of quiet dread; you sense that something’s lurking behind that dust, but you don’t know what. And you’re not at all sure what to make of Catherine, a woman whose sexually free past seems to be mirrored by her look-alike daughter. Gradually, we learn the family recently moved after Lily became involved in an inappropriate relationship; now, in the film’s early scenes, the teen flirts dangerously with every man she sees. “She doesn’t get it from me,” says Matthew, who avoids his wife’s advances. Sexuality, like that desert, seems like a danger here; something in which to lose yourself. Surreal dream sequences blend into reality, in the dust’s smoke.
Watching the film, you think of “Picnic at Hanging Rock” or “Walkabout”; classic Australian movies in which the Outback is a place of mystery, where people can be transformed, or disappear without a trace. “Strangerland” isn’t at that level — there’s something flat and grim about the storytelling, and Kidman’s character in particular remains puzzling — but it haunts you all the same, the way a room retains the day’s heat even after darkness falls.
Movie Review ★★★
‘Strangerland,’ with Nicole Kidman, Joseph Fiennes, Hugo Weaving, Lisa Flanagan, Meyne Wyatt, Maddison Brown, Nicholas Hamilton. Directed by Kim Farrant, from a screenplay by Fiona Seres and Michael Kinirons. 111 minutes. Rated R for language, some sexuality and brief graphic nudity. Sundance (21+).