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Sundance: Strangerland, an Incoherent Sexual Mirage

Nathaniel reporting from Park City

Weaving, Fiennes, and Kidman on the set of "Strangerland"There are a lot of things that are unclear in Strangerland, secrets covered as they are in beautifully dangerous sandstorms, the warped image shimmer brought on by desert heat, and the nightmare visions of Catherine Parker (Nicole Kidman) a bored sexless wife and mother who can't sleep well since her new home lacks air conditioning. Soon her lack of sleep and her indifferent husband Matthew (Joseph Fiennes) will be the least of her worries as her children vanish into the night in the unfamiliar desert town her family's just moved to due to ____  [insert withholding of family secrets here].

What's also unclear is the poetic narration that begins the film and repeats throughout it.

Touch me in the night. No one can see"

Is it the daughter's voice? And why does it keep repeating throughout the film? And what kind of sexual touch are we talking about? That's actually important given the specifics of this narrative. [More...]

And what does this poetic diary serve other than a disembodied reminder of Lily Parker's (Maddison Brown) insatiable sex drive. Catherine and Matthew's teenage daughter is out of control, and not above sleeping with the first guy who approaches her at the local skate park in a dirty storage unit called "The Box" 

I don't intend to spoil the film -- most of what I'm talking about happens very early in the film -- but it's quickly clear that Lily is sexually troubled and promiscuous and hates her parents. In one of the film's tenser moments, the parents face off about their daughter's behavior and Matthew lets out an angry

She didn't get it from me."

In Nicole Kidman's quest to become the English-language Isabelle Huppert -- she's got the red hair, the auteur lust, and a similar taste for disturbed women -- she's playing a sexually aggressive woman who we quickly learn was once quite a wild child before she settled down with her stuffy handsome pharmacist. Now they sleep in separate rooms and he ignores her. When their introverted son and rebellious daughter go missing Catherine begins to act out, Matthew clams up, and the local detective David (Hugo Weaving) who initially thinks this is a teen runaway situation, begins to suspect foul play.

Strangerland has mood to spare but apart from Kidman's typically strong performance (its grabby provocative work if not nearly as coherently delineated as the two roles that it arguably fuses: the grieving mother of Rabbit Hole and the slutty hairdresser in The Paperboy) and Weaving's strong support, it's tough to recommend. Joseph Fiennes has the most trouble with his character, but in fairness, he has the toughest role. The screenplay intends, I'm sure, to be artfully ambiguous. Fiennes attempts to sell that rather beautifully in one particular scene ("Did I?" he says repeating a horrible accusation) but the writing of his character especially is so schizophrenic as to make the role impossible. In one scene he's like the devil, in the next, a dutiful husband with an exhausting unhinged wife, in the next an ogre, then a sensitive father. Repeat.

All told Strangerland doesn't have an awful lot going for it beyond its love of ominous moods, eye-catching desert landscapes (the film was shot by P.J. Dillon, best known for his cinematography on Vikings the TV series) and Kidman and Weaving, though to be fair the ending is more satisfying plot and emotion wise than I thought was possible given the red herring incoherency. For a while I worried I was missing something until the mirage like beauty gradually unmasked itself as total evasiveness. What is the movie trying to say or is it just trying to achieve peak ambiguity without the Malick or Kubrick level skill set it'd require to make a movie that's all mood and no reveal? The film comes from first time feature director Kim Farrant. Given a few strong scenes and the distinctly feminine sexual voice (always welcome and in short supply behind the camera) I'd love to see a second film, but I fear the first was far too ambitious for a debut. 

Grade: C/C+

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Reader Comments (19)

Aw, sounds very disappointing. Still excited to see Kidman's performance though.

January 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSad man

Wow. Joseph Fiennes looks a lot like Colin O'Donoghue on Once Upon A Time.

January 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBia

"a bored sexless wife and mother who can't sleep well since her new home lacks air conditioning."

Ugh. Story of my life.

But yeah, disappointing. I want good things for Nicole but just there just seems to be lots of disappointments for her.

January 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDerreck.

Thanks for the review. It's disappointing that this doesn't turn out to be good but this is why I love her so much. Which A-lister will take chances with a first time female director in an indie beside her? I can't think of any or too many of them. Even male A-listers usually go for the more established directors instead of newbies. I am still excited to see this since it seems intriguing and there are elements that are good beside the overwrought story.

And did you guys watch her Sundance interview with Anne Thompson? She mentioned that working on this movie allowed her and her kids to spend more time with her now deceased dad so she is eternally grateful for making this movie.

I hope Kim Farrant will become a good director so in years to come when people discovering her filmography, they will check this out and see even though this is not a complete success, they will appreciate chances Nicole took with her.

January 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDrew

I don't think that the movie is "disappointing"...I mean..I much prefer the idea that ambiguity is kind of an aware choice in this thanks for this review..
By the way...once again Kidman bears the whole movie...what's this woman?

January 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul

Generally if Nicole Kidman is in a movie then it is rubbish. We saw it a Sundance and it was a bore.

January 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMisha

Thanks for the review, Nathaniel! I've been anxious to read your thoughts and, even though you were disappointed, I'm still intrigued by the premise of the film and Nicole's involvement. Good to hear she's solid in it. I'll follow her anywhere, a point made clear by the fact that a copy of Before I Go to Sleep was waiting for me when I got home from work today. I guess Nicole and I are both gluttons for punishment. Hopefully I'll take more away from it than you did, I also loved Stoker, which I know you weren't the biggest fan of.

January 28, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterthefilmjunkie

Nat, will you be catching Grandma? I'm really excited that Lily Tomlin has a lead role in a film.

January 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Thanks, Misha.

January 28, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterdawn

Disappointed the movie isn't great. Because Joseph Fiennes looks sooooooooo dreamy in those shots… Daddy…..

January 29, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterrichard

Kidman takes what she can get. Nothing risky about it. She needs the money.

January 29, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSorry

Nathaniel, why do you say Nicole gives a typically strong performance?. You wrote:
"apart from Kidman's typically strong performance (its grabby provocative work if not nearly as coherently delineated as the two roles that it arguably fuses..." )

"grabby provocative and not nearly as coherently delineated" does not sound like a strong (or even good) performance to me. Also I don't think Nicole is on a quest to imitate anyone much less Huppert...Huppert surely knows the difference between a disastrous project and a good project, while Nicole does not...Nicole goes blindly into anything no matter if disaster is written all over it!

January 29, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterdawn

Nicole does not need the money, Sorry. Her net worth is well known, she is a very rich woman plus her husband is super successful and makes millions and millions so she is doing fine money-wise. But she will take anything she can get because she loves to act. Unfortunately and sadly, she cannot tell the difference between good scripts and bad scripts, good or bad directors, good or bad filmmaking. Also, she makes decisions based on impulse, usually not the best way to take on a large project that could ruin one's filmography (she's been ruining her filmography for the last 12 years actually so she has a history of making bad decisions).It's a miracle she can even get offers anymore and how she managed to work for Herzog is beyond me. Seems like he would have been more selective for the lead role in Queen of the Desert.

January 30, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterdawn

Queen of the Desert was originally lined up for Naomi Watts but she dropped out and probably pleaded with Herzog to take Kidman in her place... It is probably gonna bomb at the box office now.

January 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterArthur

I think Queen of the Desert will bomb next week at the Berlin Film Fest...another Grace of Monaco (that one was decimated by critics at Cannes and went to VOD in the U.S. and I think the same will happen to Queen of the Desert at the Berlinale).

Kidman is Queen of the Flops!

January 31, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterdawn

Yeah, it is amazing how one actress could have been in so many crap movies. Grace of Monaco, which could have been an Oscar baity vehicle for a lead actress (Amy Adams?) was one of the worst films I've seen in years.

February 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterArthur

This movie is sucked, it had no ending but only only leaves u wondering what happened. I hate those type of movies, so much drama and sad moments which leads to no end. Don't even waste your time. You'll get caught up with the movie until to be disappointed in the end.

July 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLuis Rodriguez

Just watched it on PPV. What a disappointment! At the end, you're left with, huh?! This is to movies what a work by Metro (the racehorse) is to the painting world. Only the most gullible and wanna-be artsy fartsy types will dare to attribute meaning to it.

July 26, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRon

Wow. I'm surprised. So many whom watched this film and commented so negatively... Performances in this film were fantastic by all cast. Nicole is particularly brilliant. The script is quite beautiful and provocative. The ending is ambiguous but why must we always know exactly what happens in a film? Anyways I was left very effected by this film and feel it deserves way more acclaim than found on this site.

March 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAngela

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