Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein’s The Strange Ones is a work of stylistic doodling in search of a reason to exist. The film is impressive on its terms, reveling in innuendo and unease—a mood that the filmmakers confidently sustain. But The Strange Ones is all impersonal mood, fashioned around a narrative secret that Radcliff and Wolkstein dance around for 70 minutes, until full disclosure reveals the film to be a gimmicky calling card.
The film opens on a vaguely dramatized event that will haunt the characters and be eventually redefined, of course, by a climactic revelation. Sam (James Freedson-Jackson) is a vacant-eyed boy whom we meet in a home that’s soon engulfed by fire. Transfixed by the flames, Sam is pulled out of the building by Nick (Alex Pettyfer), and the pair subsequently roam upstate New York, presumably evading the fallout of whatever happened in Sam’s home. They wander roads that lead them to a gas station, an off-season motel, the woods of Nick’s childhood, and a work camp for troubled teenagers.
Strictly speaking, these anecdotes compose The Strange Ones’s entire narrative, though these isolated capsules of incident are united by the looming dread that’s theoretically evoked by the opening sequence. Sam and Nick claim to be brothers, but that’s clearly either a lie or a partial truth. There’s a creepy sexual tension between Sam and the handsome and much-older Nick, embodied by lingering shots of Nick gazing at a shirtless Sam, by their proclivity for sharing the same bed, and by Sam’s almost psychotic jealousy over Nick’s flirtation with a motel employee, Kelly (Emily Althaus).
Radcliff and Wolkstein suggest that Sam, traumatized by the fire, is in a sort of dissociative state. Sam tells Nick that he can’t discern the difference between dreams and reality, while Nick asserts that reality can be willed by the mind into nonexistence. This sense of malleable subjectivity leads to a few chilling moments, such as when Nick tells Sam that a coffee cup on a diner table isn’t actually there, prompting the object to vanish. The filmmakers also implicitly emphasize various openings as “found” portals into other dimensions, such as the translucent door of a washing machine, a swimming pool, and a cave in the woods that’s visually defined by its pitch-black recesses.
The Strange Ones revels in a supernaturally charged ennui that recalls Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls and Frank Perry’s The Swimmer, though Radcliff and Wolkstein’s film lacks the emotional robustness of those classics. As beautiful and unnerving as its compositions are, The Strange Ones grows rote and repetitive, and the filmmakers’ fetish for slowness as its own reward becomes tedious. Nick and Sam are ciphers connected through a series of unconvincing and faintly exploitive plot twists, and the film’s mixture of sensationalism and self-conscious artiness is experimentally disingenuous at best.