Joel Edgerton has been away from his native Australia for quite some time now, busy with everything from Oscar biopics like Loving to weirdo arthouse stuff like The Green Knight and blockbuster TV in the form of Obi-Wan Kenobi, so you would assume that the project that lured him back would be a truly remarkable one. And, though the end result doesn’t quite live up to the promise, The Stranger, on paper, fits that bill, inspired by the true story of one of the most incredible undercover police operations ever launched.
The mission is to capture a suspected child murderer, represented here by the eerie Henry Teague (Sean Harris), who has resurfaced as a person of interest 8 years after the killing actually took place. To win his trust, and hopefully an eventual confession, the Western Australia police plan a sting involving an army of undercover officers, all playing members of the same fictitious criminal organisation that ‘recruits’ Henry, making him feel safe and powerful, with the aim of bringing his guard all the way down.
The lead point of contact is ‘Mark’ (Joel Edgerton), a gruff 40-something officer whose real name we never learn who manages to build a solid bond with Henry, but inevitably finds himself sickened and haunted by their ‘friendship’, the paranoia of the work seeping into his home life. In the smaller moments where the rest of the ‘gang’ aren’t present, The Stranger can feel a bit generic, but the moments where writer-director Thomas M Wright lets himself indulge in creeping psychological horror are definite highlights, especially in their clever use of understated VFX, pushing faces into the realm of the uncanny.
To stand out from the undercover crime crowd, Wright chases an incredibly dark and brooding atmosphere, which fits the story and does allow for a few incredible visual and sonic moments, but also makes the whole thing feel very opaque. The emotions and action of the piece are kept at arms’ length, which eventually saps the initially oppressive tension. Edgerton sells the strain of Mark’s job well, his barely suppressed panic evident whenever he’s finally left alone but, inevitably, the film belongs to Harris.
From Southcliffe to the Mission Impossible films, he’s always convinced as a terrifying villain (even his more heroic characters like MacDuff and King Arthur carry a ghostly charge), and he ratchets his capacity for raspy evil as far as it will go here – a scene in which Henry describes his porn-consumption habits sticks to you like tar. It’s the raison d’etre for a film like this that – maybe somewhat ghoulishly – seeks to show you the man behind a headline-grabbing monster, and Harris rises to the occasion.
With a story that would feel very far-fetched if you didn’t know it was true, The Stranger will send to scrambling to Wikipedia to find out more, but that is likely the longest-lingering effect it will have. Though it is always striking, and momentarily thrilling, its gruelling darkness makes it a bit one-note, a well-made criminal procedural that, just maybe, could have been better suited to TV.