An undercover cop befriends a murder suspect in The Stranger, a taut Australian thriller in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section. Written and directed by Thomas M. Wright (Acute Misfortune), it features excellent performances from Sean Harris and Joel Edgerton, who also serves as producer.
The Stranger begins simply enough: two men strike up a conversation on a long bus journey. One is a loner, Henry (a perfectly-cast Harris), the other a new arrival in town, Paul (Steve Mouzakis). Paul needs a friend; Henry needs work. When Paul offers to introduce his new pal to his criminal contacts, Henry nervously accepts. Enter Mark (Joel Edgerton), who’s presented as a mid-level crime boss with smuggling work on offer. Intimidated but fascinated, Henry goes along for the ride and is drawn to Mark, spending time with him on the job.
Except, there is no job. It is revealed early on that Paul and Mark are police detectives working as part of an elaborate operation to identify and befriend a series of suspects in a case of child murder years earlier. It’s a grim but riveting premise that’s a fictionalized account of the police operation outlined in Kate Kyriacou’s book THE STING: The Undercover Operation that Caught Daniel Morcombe’s Killer.
As we watch Mark and Henry grow closer, a parallel narrative shows the larger force’s efforts to determine the men in the area of the boy’s abduction. Key to this is Detective Rylett (Jada Alberts), who gradually becomes convinced that Henry is the one responsible. The timeline of this manhunt is perhaps deliberately unclear, but the details are as fascinating as Mark’s quest to win Henry’s trust and coax out key information from his past.
As the pair continue their uncertain dance, driving from wasteland missions and motel meetings to Henry’s sparse home, the tone ranges from sinister to wry and observational. Watching two gruff, socially-challenged men crack open beers and attempt a conversation — while simultaneously lying to each other — teeters on the edge of dark humor. But the sobering reminder of what’s at stake is always around the corner.
The editing in The Stranger creates nightmarish moments within Mark’s narrative: abrupt cuts are often followed by the detective waking up in a sweat. The toll on this single father is clear, and well portrayed by Edgerton, but it’s told in an impressionistic manner that doesn’t fully explore his character. Nevertheless, you’re left with an admiration for the extraordinary police work that usually remains secret by its very nature — and this quietly compelling insight will stay with you for a while.
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