Joseph Fiennes plays Matthew Parker, a pharmacist who has moved his family to a run down town in the Australian Outback to escape the past. No one particularly likes it there, especially Tommy, his son who has taken to walking at night when he can’t sleep. Daughter Lily seems to be the primary reason for the move as she had an affair with her teacher. When the two children wander off into the night, Parker is not too keen to make the town aware of their troubles.
As the Lily promiscuity becomes more apparent, fingers start to point: Catherine Parker (Fienne’s wife played by Nicole Kidman) points to the simple Bertie who painted their house and was the subject of Lili’s secret love collages, Matthew Parker points to his wife (he actually tells her “well, she didn’t get it from me”), and Detective Davis Rae (Hugo Weaving) points to Matthew Parker, especially when it comes out that he beat Lili’s teacher nearly to death. As the search continues, the Parker marriage crumbles and they take the town with it.
If that wasn’t enough, the setting provides a landscape of despair to torture the characters. As the town scours the desolate countryside for signs of the children, the barren cliff walls and dry dust mock their quest. I’ve often remarked that so many post-apocalyptic films utilize the outback as their location because it has that naturally beautiful yet completely inhospitable look. It is so effective then to see it in a contemporary piece, where it can represent the apocalypse of all hope.The town plays as a border town, one last stop before entering the unknown, as the children disappear into the empty beyond.
The most frightening moment of the film, and one that stands out as the most original, is the onset of the dust storm, a virtual wall of sand that rolls over the town. The Parkers are driving through the town looking for their children when a tidal wave of dust engulfs the car. Their search continues in the unbreathable air, and they can barely open their eyes.
Each performance shines, and it especially nice to see a film that could have just been a simple end of a marriage kitchen sink drama layered with a mystery and some great action moments. In fact, it is the most complete film I’ve seen at Sundance so far. If I have to be critical, I would say the ending, which is a bit of a non-ending, is somewhat disappointing. Not that it is unexpected, and in a story like this, the open-ended feeling adds to the unknown quality of life, the theme of rescuing your family from the brink of desolation. I just wished they had tied up one story line, at least in terms of how the family will proceed. I won’t say more than that, because I don’t want to ruin how the film plays out, so you know I think its good.
It sounds like STRANGERLAND is about to be picked up by Alchemy for 1.5 million and a muti-city theatrical US release, so that’s good news, you should be able to see this film sooner rather than later. Be sure to follow me on twitter @bearsfonte for my film by film reaction of this year’s festival.