On the run from something we can only glimpse in momentary flashes, two brothers amble across the forgotten side of America, hoping to make a fresh start. As the audience follows the trail of breadcrumbs the confident storytelling leaves us, it becomes clear that their relationship has a much darker history than it appears. Co-directors Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein are masters of slow burn mystery, and their collaboration THE STRANGE ONES, world-premiering at SXSW 2017 but based on their 2011 short, is a calculated slink through the shadows of suspense. Featuring complex characters burdened with dubious pasts, the film relishes the tension of a character struggling to figure what to do next and an audience trying to figure out exactly what the fuck happened.
Nick and Sam (or is he Jeremiah as he keeps introducing himself) make their way along the back roads, on their way to go camping, at least that’s what they are telling people. The reality is something far darker: a house burnt down, a dead body, a late-night escape. Radcliff and Wolkstein remain stingy throughout the film with the details, instead allowing the complicated relationship between the brothers fill the moments of the film, an exercise in restraint and patience. Alex Pettyfer always turns in a solid performance. In THE STRANGE ONES, with Nick almost old enough to be Sam’s father, his abrupt shifts between protective and possessive hint at the unspoken alliance between the two, fascinating the audience with mere allusions to the truth. Sam/Jeremiah, James Freedson-Jackson, who I fell in love with in COP CAR, lets the emotion play him instead of playing the emotion. At times like a bird with a broken wing, and at others like a feral cat cornered, he both reaches for comfort and lashes out for defense.
One of my biggest pet-peeves with screenplays is when characters talk about things they would never discuss for the benefit of the audience. The classic ‘as you know we are brothers’ – or in fact any sentence that could start with ‘as you know’ – has ruined many a film for me. THE STRANGE ONES excels at leaving out those exchanges. Radcliff and Wolkstein throw us in at the deep end, providing basically no backstory and letting us know time and time again that even what the characters say cannot be trusted. Even what they see. There is a recurring motif of the cat Sam left behind in their flight, a cat that can’t possibly be following them miles across the landscape of their exodus. THE STRANGE ONES is a measured experience. Every scene offers new information while posing new questions. Teasing the viewer with long, gorgeously composed shots that drip with mystery and tension, the film invites to viewer to look closer, watch actively, and question everything.
THE STRANGE ONES is the perfect festival film, an experience that demands dynamic consideration of every deliberate detail. In the end, despite tying up the puzzling foundation of their journey, the film still leaves many open-ended questions for audiences to debate afterwards.
THE STRANGE ONES world-premiered at SXSW 2017 and should be playing the festival circuit for the next several months. Don’t miss it!