In the portentous outback thriller Strangerland, a giant dust storm engulfs the film’s small-town setting just as the central mystery is introduced. Everything gets caked in reddish desert filth and stays that way for the duration of the film. Art-house cinema has a long tradition of signifying the ambiguities of human nature with climatic abnormalities: Torrential rains, fog clouds, and snow storms blow through the history of modernist narrative filmmaking, upsetting cosmic balances in the worlds of Fellini, Antonioni, Angelopoulos, Tarr, and many others. By the same token, there’s also a precedent for art-house frauds orchestrating atmospheric turbulence in the interest of distracting from the fogginess of their themes or hinting at a larger significance that’s missing from the text. Strangerland falls into the latter category, as the inciting haze that rolls into town ultimately just serves to underline how covered in dust the film’s commentaries on gender, sexuality, and parenting are.
Given little to do but gaze out windows and nervously pace as if always on the verge of a hysterical breakdown, Nicole Kidman plays Catherine Parker, the matriarch of a deeply dysfunctional family that’s just relocated to the remote town of Nathgari, Australia. (The exact circumstances instigating their move are parsed out piece by piece and finally dropped like a bomb despite being of a pragmatic nature that doesn’t actually re-contextualize any of the film’s discoveries therein.) Catherine’s husband, Matthew (Joseph Fiennes), is a brooding pharmacist who cultivates a chilly ambiance around the homestead, so it’s no shock that 15-year-old daughter Lily (Maddison Brown) and younger brother Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton) like to get out—the former for raunchy escapades with local skater punks and the latter for aimless half-asleep strolls around town at the witching hour. These two particular tastes for rebellion collide one ominous night when the pair goes out together for reasons entirely evident to us, but firmly in the willful realm of denial for Mom and Dad. Then the aforementioned dust storm hits, and on the following morning a missing-persons case is in full effect.
There are other principal participants in this case (such as Hugo Weaving’s mournful detective and a mentally challenged boy, played by Meyne Wyatt, who seems connected in some way to the disappearance), but this is a film first and foremost about Catherine and Matthew’s psychological reckoning, one in which supporting personalities work mostly to draw out various weaknesses and anxieties within them. Indeed, the mystery disappearance at the heart of the story is really just a big red herring functioning as an opportunity for marital therapy, as Lily’s never so much a character as a character trait. Her promiscuity is both the lynchpin of her mother’s seesawing shame and jealousy and the trigger of her father’s bottled-up rage and misogyny, and what’s troubling is there’s never any negotiation between the two. The longer their children stay lost in an increasingly scorching landscape, the less the parents seem to change: Matthew just fulminates in disgust over female sexual abandon while Catherine retreats into the delirium just barely concealed in the opening passages of the film. Director Kim Farrant is on record as having feminist aims with Strangerland, but the insistently dour tone she applies to the film fails to single out Matthew’s response to the details of Lily’s disappearance as any more distressing than Catherine’s, and the generally cartoonish thuggery of the town’s horny adolescent male population doesn’t have any bite either.
Given all its vagueness with regard to any absolutes in the investigation, Strangerland’s ultimate thematic suggestion should come as no surprise: Whatever harm has been done to Lily and Tommy in the desert is a metaphorical representation of the harm already done to them by simply being victims of incompetent and dishonest parenting. This kind of heavy-handed moralizing would be tedious enough if it weren’t also tied to an aesthetic that hoists upon it big dollops of gloomy seriousness: shadowy indoor lighting that further legitimizes Lily and Tommy’s impulse to go get some sun, an effectively ominous score by Keefus Ciancia that would be put to better use in something of actual gravitas, and plenty of hard cuts from small-scale squabbles to menacing late-afternoon landscape shots. To further elevate a fundamentally domestic crisis, Farrant even carts in a mystical element with the fairly racist inclusion of a mysterious ethnic woman who may or may not have avant-garde methods for pinning down the whereabouts of the children. All the while, Strangerland operates as if under the presumption that the sketchiness of its various insights will be smoothed over, or at least disguised, by the sheer solemnity of the execution. Everything’s fogged over anyway, right?