Like the film itself, the promo image for Thomas M Wright’s The Stranger is mesmerising and ambivalent.
Is it the face of Joel Edgerton, portraying the film’s protagonist, or Sean Harris, who plays the antagonist? Moreover, exactly who is the protagonist and who the antagonist in this story?
Upon closer scrutiny, the face is revealed to be a composite of both characters: Edgerton’s Mark, the pursuer, and Harris’s Henry, the pursued.
“And one of them is in a dream, the other in a nightmare,” Wright tells Guardian Australia.
The film – which opens in Australian cinemas today – received a standing ovation when it premiered at Cannes film festival in May. It made its Australian debut at the Melbourne film festival a few months later, earning a five-star review from Guardian critic Luke Buckmaster, who described The Stranger as an unconventionally impressive crime drama that creeps assiduously into brilliance.
But even before those early screenings, it had attracted controversy.
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Although all the characters in The Stranger bear fictional names – including the victim, who is only referred to and not depicted – the film is based on the almost decade-long police investigation into one of Australia’s most monstrous crimes: the 2003 abduction and murder of 13-year-old Queensland schoolboy Daniel Morcombe. The crime itself is not re-enacted.
In July this year the parents of the victim, Bruce and Denise Morcombe, called on audiences to boycott the film, describing the project – which did not have their consent or input, and which they hadn’t seen – as a “selfish cash grab” that sought to “glorify a horrific incident”.
Comparisons have been made between The Stranger and Justin Kurzel’s Nitram, which garnered critical acclaim, a clutch of awards and a barrage of criticism from those close to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre upon which that film was based.
And speaking to the Guardian, Wright admits that he was initially too scared of the subject matter to touch it.
Joel Edgerton had been the first to suggest he tackle the Morcombe story after seeing Wright’s 2018 debut film, Acute Misfortune, based on Erik Jensen’s biography of the artist Adam Cullen. Edgerton gave Wright a copy of journalist Kate Kyriacou’s book The Sting, a detailed account of the so-called Mr Big elaborate investigative technique pioneered in Canada to elicit confessions in cold case crimes, which was used to solve the Morcombe case.
“It’s not something that I had an abiding interest in, and when I first read Kate’s book … I thought there was no way I was going to do this,” Wright says. “I was so afraid of it. I thought, this is too tough. I knew what it would take, in terms of the depth of research that would be required and the commitment that it would ask of me. My partner actually said to me, ‘I don’t want you to do this. I know where you’ll go.’
“But the more I sat with it, and the more I read it, it began to reveal itself as a film not about violence at all. Clearly, the reason for the film is an unnameable act of violence … that embodies the worst of what human animals are capable of. But that is not the subject of the film.”
The Stranger, says Wright, is instead a rumination on the connections between people, and how the fundamental ability to empathise – or lack thereof – determines our humanity.
“That’s the connective tissue of the film, that’s what holds together our society in so many ways: our essential empathy toward one another,” he says.
Henry – the character played by English actor Harris (24 Hour Party People) – is a chilling study in the absence of empathy.
“The film never attempts to privilege or indulge him, or try to psychoanalyse his character, because the film doesn’t have any interest in the whys or whats of what he has done, any more than those [real life] investigative detectives and undercover operatives did.”
Edgerton’s Mark, the detective posing as a henchman in a fake organised crime outfit to gain Henry’s confidence, is quietly imploding under the weight of empathy. His years of undercover work – the trauma and the paranoia – have emotionally paralysed him, a character study Wright says pays homage to police working at the fringes of law enforcement, who see the worst in people in their daily lives.
“The social contract between Mark and society is really eroded; he sees society held together by thin, thin fibres, separating us from the violence that’s out there everywhere,” says Wright.
“I hope that cops will be able to watch this film and will feel that their work has been honoured.”
Glimpses of Mark’s ever dwindling capacity for tenderness is epitomised in his relationship with his young child, the product of a collapsed marriage – and when the boy briefly goes missing during a night-time game of hide and seek, the father’s terror and panic is perhaps one of the most violent scenes in the film.
The director cast his own eight-year-old son, Cormac Wright, in the role.
“I decided from the start I would not depict any representation of the victim, and that I would not represent any of the family, because I felt that I had no right to do that … so by making this absence the centre of the film, I’m asking all my collaborators and also the audience, what is it that you care most about? What is the thing that you love the most? And I embodied that by casting my own son, making him and the relationship with his father the emotional centre of the film.”
Wright said using his own son as the film’s emotional foil was not a difficult decision.
“It wasn’t made cynically, it just felt necessary,” he says. “He’s a big part of my life and I wanted him to be a part of this work. That’s my investment, part of my own understanding of how to appreciate the material.”
The Stranger is in Australian cinemas now, and will be on Netflix from 19 October