THE STRANGE ONES: Elusive In The Right Way
A provoking film that resonates long after the credits have roles, The Strange Ones is an understated debut, with just enough external beauty and internal unease to keep us hopeful for their cinematic future.
The directing duo of Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein develop their short of the same name into an ominous debut feature with The Strange Ones.
Our main pair is unveiled as brothers, but through the discord doubt rears its head. Reluctant to give out their real names to strangers, Sam (James Freedson-Jackson) and Nick (Alex Pettyfer) are on a backroad headed for the woods to go camping. They are also hiding something. With tense dialogue and a precipitating sense of dread that revolves them, one thing is clear: this isn’t a pleasant trip.
Unknown & Invoking
Young Sam is spooked and visions flash through his head, ones such as an unidentified man, wide-eyed staring up at him, boxes littered around the home. Sam standing in front of a house engulfed in flames. Is it real? Where are they going? What has happened? There are plenty of theories to consider. He receives a text asking where he is and if he’s dead. He responds yes before tossing it in the trash. The film does everything it can to be creepy from the get-go and it doesn’t let up.
“The things inside your head, they’re only as real as you want them to be.” This is the guidance that Nick provides him, a way to subdue his fear while they eat at a diner. Sam isn’t having fun, he’s traumatized, but the why isn’t secured early on. It is evident that these two characters have a history. The dread and curiosity mixes to keep us engaged, anticipating resolutions to the questions that arise.
After their car breaks down they stay at an off-season motel where Nick flirts with the generous Kelly (Emily Althaus) who offers them a room for free. This detour provides us with one of the best scenes in the film with a monologue from Sam that is audacious and chilling. This is clue number one that this psychological thriller isn’t entirely forthright, and that this boy is brimming with raw emotion.
Ultimately, they arrive at their destination. Deep in the woods is a cabin, where Nick spent time as a child, as he said, “It’s just the two of us, the trees and the animals.” He takes him out for target practice and shows Sam a cave he spent time in when he was young. When Nick says he came out different, Sam asks how. “Kind of like I changed into a new person. I mean I was still me. It was like I traveled in time, where everything was the same, except not.”
Subtle but effective. It doesn’t take long for their hide out plan to derail and for Sam to be out on his own.
Presence Over Purpose
As Strange Ones progresses we are given hints, but each additional detail is to be mulled, and not taken as certainty. The surface is repeatedly scraped until we see the picture better but not clear. Since a shroud of obscurity wraps the story, some scenes are played out in a trance. Cinematographer Todd Banhazl manages to ground the tale, while keeping the edges blurred. This drama maintains suspense by winding you tightly around its finger and it keeps you there with its potent performances.
Alex Pettyfer is mysterious and somewhat baleful, with one of his best roles yet. However, James Freedson-Jackson is the star here. His portrayal is enigmatic, soulful and completely captivating. There is also a sinister side which we glimpse warily. The casting choices were great, as much of The Strange Ones discoveries rely on reactions and Freedson-Jackson’s wounded gaze.
As this psychological story unfurls, it dabbles with suggestions of abuse, obsession and rage. In large this is about Sam and his journey to work through his own struggles. Its beginning may seem slow going, but once a rhythm is found the remainder of the hour and twenty-minute film feels earned.
The ambiguity adds an extra level of intrigue, which surrounds it in its entirety. In fact, one could argue the validity of many of the events, unsure if our main character is a reliable narrator or not.A lot of questions are pressed upon the viewer and while some are answered, some are left to ponder in the apt durations of silence.
I preferred it this way.
For most of the film, the score is an instrumental of woodwinds and heavy tones that is white knuckled and gloomy. The trepidation that builds is a formidable force, perpetrating through each crafty shot. Atmospheric and inviting, even the heaviest parts of the story offer glimpses of a youthful awe, accentuated simply by the song of crickets and the whooshing of trees in the background.
A section of the film revolves around these two travelers, but there is also a third act when Sam stumbles across a farm worked by kids and run by Gary (Gene Jones).
Though there are scenes with Sam interacting with various people, including Gary, it is clear Sam is coping with the sting of what has happened. His consternation keeps others at a distance, including the audience, as he seems misplaced wherever he goes.
Freedson-Jackson is a young actor to watch, with a riveting follow up to his previous movie Cop Car. For Radcliff and Wolkstein, who also co-wrote the screenplay and edited, The Strange Ones is an understated debut, with just enough external beauty and internal unease to keep us hopeful for their cinematic future.
The Strange Ones: Conclusion
As unsettling as it is, The Strange Ones is also provoking. When the credits roll, it resonates. It is uncertain what’s going to happen next to Sam, or if he can ever truly leave his past behind, but we are left wondering.
Do you agree? How did it make you feel? Let us know in the comments below!
The film can be streamed on DirectTV and was released in US theaters on January 5th. For all international release dates, see here.
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