Strangerland (2015)     ★★½

Strangerland sits comfortably alongside other Australian films like Wake In Fright, Walkabout, The Rover, and sure even A Cry In The Dark, in a group of films that leave me terrified of being stranded in the remote, punishing Australian outback. In each of these films, and many others, the land becomes a character all its own, used by filmmakers as a type of brutal commentary on the unfolding human drama occurring in the forefront. In Strangerland, director Kim Farrant’s feature debut, it swallows up the two children of Catherine and Matthew Parker, leaving the grief-stricken parents to face the symptoms of their own dysfunction, and various ghosts from the past, while the local sheriff with wounds of his own sends out a hunting party to uncover the truth behind their disappearance.

But Farrant isn’t interested in finding the children so much as she is in digging into the Parker family’s secrets. It’s not long into the film that fifteen-year-old Lily (Maddison Parker) and her younger brother Tommy disappear into the night without returning. Their family just moved into the small town, their reasons for doing so unnecessarily withheld by Farrant for a length of time, but appearing to have something to do with Lily’s sexuality, on constant guard by her father, and a source of repression for her mother, nevertheless on display front and center in a series of quick scenes where she answers the door in a see-through t-shirt and underwear, and happily hooks up with a random local skater punk, nobody in the family appears to be happy, meaning somewhere something’s gotta give.

Something does give when the children vanish, opening up the gates for Farrant’s attempt at a raw, psychological portrait of an emotionally scarred family. But she never manages anything beyond the superficial manifestations of their guilt, rage and repression. We see Matthew (a terribly underutilized Joseph Fiennes) clench his fists, assault townspeople, and scream at his wife for making Lily this way, the “whore” that mysterious anonymous callers are labeling her. And Catherine, played by Nicole Kidman in a welcome return to acting we all know she is capable of, and the best thing about this film, sinks into her depression by, of course, trying to sleep with everyone in the town so she can own Matthew’s accusations. But we need more if we are to glean anything beyond the same old tired display of gender politics seeking to incite outrage within the manufactured air of resignation these characters inhabit. Farrant is content to merely observe these people, and the constant aerial views of the town she returns to frequently, along with shots of the horizon where the land dominates the frame, both accompanied by composer Keefus Ciancia’s harrowing, evocative score, allows her to create an ominous, determinist setting for her characters, but it’s all just an illusion of the psychological. Strangerland needs a first person narrative, not a third person, where the superficial is too easy a substitute for real human emotion, inviting a false sense that Farrant believes she is plunging the depths of the human condition.

Farrant also throws in some pseudo-spiritual nonsense about a Rainbow Serpent, an Aboriginal myth of power and fertility, meant to illustrate Catherine’s desperation in finding her daughter, but all it really does is impeach the director’s credibility, making a token reach beyond her grasp and then dropping it entirely, because there was never anything to it to begin with. The Rainbow Serpent functions better as namedropping, and a misguided attempt to connect the film indigenously to the land, the very piece of Earth that defines all who choose to face it on its terms, scorched and barren a wasteland as it can be, which sets up Catherine’s final desperate act.

Watching Strangerland I kept thinking how (and wishing) fellow Aussie filmmaker Jane Campion would have directed this, considering its potentially feminist slant. She would not have shied away from stripping these characters to the bone, and would not have been satisfied with such a generic treatment of them. The reality of the presumed fates of little Tommy and Lily demand these characters go further and deeper into a pit of despair, but in Farrant’s Strangerland we are supposed to be merely content to stand up on the edge and just look down.

The Verdict: Pan