Strangerland (2015, directed by Kim Farrant) is an Australian film starring Nicole Kidman, Joseph Fiennes, and Hugo Weaving.
The story takes place in a small desert town where the Parker family has relocated, after some sort of trouble involving their 15-year old daughter, Lily (Maddison Brown). Sensual, and, we gather, promiscuous, Lily begins to hang out with the older boys at the skate park. Little brother Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton) is supposed to keep an eye on her, but he resents the task, and tends to wander the town by himself at night. Pharmacist dad Matthew (Joseph Fiennes) seems angry but stoic, and is often at work. Mom Catherine (Nicole Kidman) contemplates her daughter’s wild ways with a sort of fondness, and we understand that she had been the same way in her own youth. Her marriage to Matthew is rocky at this point, as they sleep in separate beds.
One night Tommy sets out to wander, and his sister follows. They never make it home that night, and it’s the fallout from their disappearance that takes up much of the film.
At first, Matthew believes Lily has simply taken off, as she had done in the past, but Catherine isn’t so sure. They go to the local police, headed by Detective David Rae (Hugo Weaving). As a dust storm sweeps through the town, Catherine becomes more frantic. Search parties are sent out, and Rae questions several youths, but no answers come. Catherine discovers Lily’s explicit and disturbing journal, and it comes to light that she had a sexual relationship with Burtie (Meyne Wyatt), a slow-witted Aboriginal young man who helped around the Parker house. Rae happens to be involved with Burtie’s sister, Coreen (Lisa Flanagan), which puts him in a sticky situation.
As the days go by with no sign of the children, tempers flare, blame is meted out, and Catherine begins to unravel. The rest of the film is a strange muddle as we witness her breakdown, are shown sweeping shots of the dry, scrubby landscape, the image of a blurred woman walking in the desert (Lily? or Catherine herself? They’re both lost), Lily’s voice voice reciting some of her strange poetry.
Kidman naturally excels at bringing Catherine’s complicated character to life; a woman who mourns not only the loss of her children, but perhaps her former self, as well, a self she relived through her daughter. Fiennes is believable as a man who is angry and feels uncomfortable with his daughter’s sexuality; he has cause, as it’s brought pain and humiliation to his family. But on a deeper level, one of the themes of the movie examines the discomfort we feel with women who find their identity and freedom through their sexuality. Weaving, in Rae, brings a note of stability and reason through all the hysterics, though it’s clear he’s weathered his own storms. It’s nice to see Weaving as a real human being rather than an Elf or computer program.
Strangerland is a grim, disturbing film that doesn’t necessarily bring any closure to the story. Rather, it’s an examination of a marriage on the edge of ruin, of a family falling apart.