When faced with the loss of loved ones, there is no telling how one might cope, especially when it’s the possible kidnapping of one’s children. The Australian film, Strangerland, which debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, explores the stages of grief and despair but what appears to be the main plot ends up being just the outer layer of a more complex story about people and the ways they attempt to manage their pain in a time of crisis and uncertainty.
MoviePilot had the opportunity to sit down with the film’s director, Kim Farrant, and discuss the behaviors the story looked to explore which are magnified by the isolation, the brutal weather conditions and the inability to keep your secrets buried.
“When your kids go missing you're in limbo” explains Farrant, “and you're waiting and waiting and what we wanted to examine is how these people behave, what are the tragic flaws they go into when they can no longer maintain the mask of the public persona.”
Starring Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes, Strangerland takes place in an isolated outback town where the Parkers have recently settled in to start a new life. Catherine (Kidman) and Matthew (Fiennes) find themselves in a crisis when their two children go missing just before a massive dust storm hits the town. When the townsfolk join the search led by cop David Rae (Hugo Weaving), suspicion begins to rise and rumours begin to brew of the Parkers’ disturbing past. In order to find their children, certain truths they do not wish to relive might have to come out.
The sense of loss is a huge theme that weaves the story carried mainly by Nicole Kidman’s character and self-realizations discovered as she searches for her children.
“She really is the spine of the story. These other characters pivot around her but she's really the driving force and it is very much so about her journey of exploration and acting out” said Farrant.
As Catherine’s worry increases she becomes desperate for answers as to why her children left in the middle of the night and who could be responsible for their disappearance. In the process, she finds some unsettling truths about her teenage daughter that resemble her own past. Clearly displayed in the pages of her journal and openly known by the boys in town, Catherine is shocked to learn about her daughter’s explicit behaviour and how it can be a symptom of her suffering.
It was this character’s grief that attracted Farrant to the script. Going through a similar process of losing her father 22 years ago, Farrant could easily understand how a person may look to numb their pain in any way possible.
“I didn't quite know how to deal with my grief and found myself wanting to kind of connect on a very primal level and wanting to reach out and wanting touch, to make love, wanting to fuck, anything but to feel the pain that I was feeling. But what I found was none of those things gave me any relief. The pain was still there.”
Farrant explores this pain with each character, demonstrating how everyone involved reacts differently to the disappearance and it is these diverse responses that ignite judgement. How should a parent act when their kids go missing? Should it be outright despair or is violence a valid emotion as well? Does a lack of expressive worry mean there is a responsibility in the disappearance? All of these questions are subtly thrown into the story, provoking mixed reactions of sympathy and disdain from the audience. Yet, as troubling truths from the characters’ lives bubble up to the surface, it becomes clear the movie is not necessarily a simple kidnapping/retrieval story. It is more about what is left behind when a loved one is taken away and the opportunity for closure is not a certainty.
“I'd say what the film is really about looking at how, in times of crisis, how people act out, what behaviours we go into when we feel totally out of control”, explained Farrant, “in the sharp edges of life, where we can't hold on to anything and everything's uncertain and in this case it is every parent's worst nightmare, their children going missing or dying”.
The urgency of the investigation is only exacerbated by the fact they only have a handful of days to find them before the gruelling weather conditions kill them. A suffocating sensation intensifies as the movie progresses and it is expertly handled by constantly paralleling the environment’s conduct to the characters’ internal struggles.
“We wanted to set the characters in a place where they felt isolated and unfamiliar and in an unforgiving environment and that turned out to be a town that's in the middle of nowhere”
While an isolated town could have been located anywhere outside of Australia, like a snowy location in the mountains, Farrant felt that snow, even though it can symbolize loneliness, didn’t feel quite right. It was the harshness of the heat and the dessert in Australia that would better suit the story.
“The countryside is ravaged by drought so in that way, the lack of softness, water, and the brutality of the heat was actually perfect for what we needed, because the relationship between the main couple, Catherine and Matthew is lacking love and softness and sensuality, when we find them at the beginning of the story you can tell there is love but there is a big distance between them of relationship issues they haven’t solved.”
Strangerland is a fantastic introspective look into the many facets of human grief, judgement and inner demons that can no longer be contained during a time of crisis. It isn’t afraid to show the more troubling and honest side of a person’s pain and how it doesn’t always follow the approved standards of how they should outwardly conduct themselves in the face of tragedy. “It was about showing the behaviours that people go into and to hold up the mirror so that they might have some more compassion for themselves and for others and in the end, less judgement.”
Strangerland is rated R for violence, sex and nudity and opened in US theatres on July 10th, 2015.