Sean Harris has always had a captivating, slightly erratic, disturbing screen presence. He uses a hollow, lifeless expression while swallowing certain sentences in a half-whisper. The characters he portrays have a ghostly quality. And he makes excellent use of that talent in Thomas M. Wright’s tense and potent “The Stranger,” which had its world debut at Cannes back in May and was quietly released on Netflix last week with next to no publicity. It’s worthwhile to look for.
In the first few moments of this real Australian story, Harris portrays Henry Teague, who later proves to be the antagonist. This movie settles right away into a procedural investigation of a terrible criminal. If you have no prior knowledge of one of the biggest undercover operations in Australia’s history, please leave now and come back later. Henry is actually the prime suspect in one of Australia’s most infamous missing person cases, and the movie shows him being dragged into a major sting operation to eventually catch him.
It begins with what Henry perceives as a chance encounter with a stranger on a bus who presents him with a chance. Henry initially appears to be about to become entangled in a criminal underworld that could land him in hot water. Even though he keeps saying he doesn’t “do violence,” he accepts to meet some enigmatic characters, including Mark Frame (Joel Edgerton), an undercover police officer. Even when it becomes clear that everything that is happening is just a trap to catch a man whom the authorities believe to have murdered a child, Mark continues to draw closer to Henry.
Wright, who also penned the screenplay for the movie adaptation of the book The Sting: The Undercover Operation That Caught Daniel Morcombe’s Killer, skillfully switches between the developing relationship between Henry and Mark and the other aspects of the investigation by Mark’s colleagues, including an effective Jada Alberts as the lead detective. With the help of editor Simon Njoo, Wright puts together a movie that is relatively uncomplicated but is edited in a way that makes it more frightening. Dream sequences and shocking jump cuts are used to illustrate how being friends with a child killer may cause internal devastation.
The character work of Edgerton and Harris, who very consciously share a muttering beard look, is what makes “The Stranger’s” craft components possible. In order to get Henry to open up to Mark and to make the detective’s descent toward the dark side more horrifying, these men are meant to look and act alike. Edgerton skillfully captures the psychological cracks that would result from him having to befriend a monster rather than becoming one like Mark, making him virtually a stranger to himself.
Netflix has a famously awful history of concealing projects; even on the day they are released, it is difficult to spot them on the home screen. Since its premiere, “The Stranger” has spent every weekend in the top ten, suggesting that it may be making a breakthrough. Seeing something deserving emerge from the sea of recognizable faces is good.
Below is the trailer for The Stranger: