SXSW: “The Strange Ones” is a haunting exercise in mood and mystery

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Lauren Wolkstein and Christopher Radcliff | Daily Texan Staff

“The Strange Ones” is a slow burn. It’s a moody mystery that withholds as much as it can from us, allowing questions to rack up one after the other before it provides any answers. Viewers who follow the narrative closely will undoubtedly be able to uncover the nature of its protagonists’ crimes, but the journey to the ending is the true reward for its patient followers.

The central protagonists are the elder Nick (Alex Pettyfer) and the younger Sam (James Freedson-Jackson). They are apparently brothers on a camping trip, through brief flashbacks to a fiery murder scene suggest they are actually on the run from the authorities. And yet, that tidbit of information barely scratches the surface of their predicament.

Directors Lauren Wolkstein and Christopher Radcliff, adapting this feature film from their short of the same name, craft an open-ended story that allows its characters’ actions to be interpreted in multiple ways. It demands attention in order to be truly appreciated.

The first half of “The Strange Ones” toys with our expectations, with our wayward protagonists driving toward a future you might think you’ve figured out Wolkstein and Radcliff’s game. To a degree, you might have, as Nick and Sam are unsurprisingly set upon by police in the woods. What follows afterward is certainly a trek off the beaten path, as Sam finds himself forced to deal with the ramifications of his and Nick’s actions alone.

 

This part of the picture is weaker, as it meanders and loses focus on its way to the finish line. Unnecessary events take place and drag out the movie more than it needs to be, and they don’t develop the characters as concisely as they could have been.

Freedson-Jackson delivers a good performance that is most memorable for his distant gaze. It is by no means a mature performance, but it capably carries the picture when Pettyfer isn’t onscreen. Pettyfer offers a predominantly stoic turn as Nick, which emphasizes the few kernels of tenderness he offers to Sam.

The subdued, minimalist nature of “The Strange Ones” may be a turnoff to some, but the themes which boil beneath its surface are fun to pick apart and explore. Sam and Nick grapple with their sexual identities and their inner demons, and it’s what they don’t say that speaks much more than what they do. Their characters share a refreshingly complex relationship that will have viewers asking more questions by the curtain call.

The film employs multiple strong visual motifs, from water to a stray cat, but most ominous and affecting is the idea of the black hole. It first appears as a swirling black doodle in Sam’s notebook, then later manifests itself in the form of a dark cave. The cave is the movie’s most powerful symbol, a representation of the depths we can sink to, the darkest selves that can overcome our best selves. Like the shadows of the cave, our sins can swallow us whole.

“The Strange Ones”

Running Time: 81 minutes

Rating: NR

Score: 4/5 stars