You could get a particular idea from watching films about Australia: Walkabout, Wake in Fright, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Wolf Creek -it is a land that either swallows you up or drives you insane, leaves you decimated -whether emotionally or literally- populated by small town losers and barely concealed psychopathy.
Australia has long had a fascination with making films about itself. Sometimes those films are barely concealed narcissism, a falsely romantic world of camp heroism, celebratory boganism, super-intelligent seagulls, and magical aboriginal friends.
Perhaps our fascination is in trying to determine which is more accurate a vision: the romantic or the fatalistic. That our fatalism tends to be pared with a sense of awe, and that our romanticism belies a lurking though suppressed fatalism suggests more overlap than one might find immediately apparent.
Take Kim Farrant’s feature film directorial debut, Strangerland. Watching the beautiful aerial shots of canyons and sweeping vistas, you find a sense of wonder competing with the insistent implication that this same land is somehow responsible for all the bad things happening to the people below who live on it.
The fictional desert town of Nathgari (in reality, Canowindra) is a place where not much happens, there isn’t much to do, and remoteness breeds moral apathy. Adults hang out at the pub. Kids hang out at the skate-park where they take breaks to get high or screw in an old shipping container.
Catherine (Nicole Kidman) and Matthew Parker (Joseph Fiennes), whose Britishness consciously recalls Gary Bond’s in Wake in Fright) have moved here to escape the problems they had in the last small town they lived: their teenaged daughter Lily (Maddison Brown) was sleeping with her teacher. Matthew beat him up severely and got tagged with a restraining order. Things in Nathgari don’t seem to be much better: Matthew and Catherine are maritally estranged; Lily is out of control; Catherine is bored out of her mind; and pharmacist Matthew can barely conceal the antipathy he has developed for his family.
Late one night Lily and her brother Tommy (Nicolas Hamilton) leave the house, and they do not return. Matthew sees them through the kitchen window. Instead of stopping them, he watches them disappear.
In the aftermath, Sherriff Rae (Hugo Weaving) is in charge of tracking down the kids, our Dantean guide through a mordant social circle instantly convinced it must have been Catherine and Matthew’s fault that the children have vanished.
Everyone, including Rae, Catherine and Matthew, appear to have secrets, scarcely concealed by unadmitted pasts that inform the present. In this palpable milieu of paranoia, the parents turn their long fostering aggression on one another, and Catherine borders on mental collapse.
Strangerland is a haunting film filled with spectral imagery, informed in equal parts peripherally by ancient Aboriginal knowledge, by Australian film, and by not too distant cultural epochs such as the Lindy Chamberlain saga. The disappearance of two children here is less the object itself than a catalyst to examine the psychological decay that simmers just below the surface of a small town’s inhabitants, and how that decay –implicitly connected to the land- is also implicitly responsible for the disappearance.
Something is going on, and none of these characters want to tell you what it is. Strangerland is built on suggestions and implications that are only confronted when the issues are forced, and even then, just barely. Not inappropriately, it has the feel of a sinister reverie, and its questions are more powerful for not having unequivocal answers.
That the film is committed to its own ambiguity is what saves certain scenes –notably, episodes of Catherine’s breakdown- from seeming as arbitrary as they might. It is tempting to say it veers on weird for weirds sake, eschewing logic; but the tone is at least consistent in its progression, in its gradual erosion of psyches.
Likewise, those scenes are the only ones where Kidman verges on overacting; but mostly her performance is welcomingly understated. Playing an Australian disarms her of much the conceit she necessarily adopts playing foreign roles: it leaves her more vulnerable. She is better for it, if occasionally histrionic, but well cast, as are Fiennes and Weaving and the rest.
Strangerland is a frequently striking film, and although it is emotionally broad enough to exceed a culturally specific appeal, sits comfortably among its predecessors in ominous Australiana. If one of its faults is that it doesn’t say anything new, what is says it says well, even when it seems unsure of what it is it is actually saying.
An often chilling vision of Australia through the looking glass.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10