The Stranger is nothing less than an Australian answer to William Friedkin’s Cruising. It’s notionally about the apprehension of Brett Peter Cowan, who was convicted of abducting and murdering Daniel Morcombe from a bus stop beneath a Sunshine Coast overpass in 2003. However, to its credit, the film quickly moves away from the specificities of that particular case, and the crime itself, to focus on the extraordinary procedure the Queensland and Western Australia police used to elicit a confession from Cowan – namely, the Mr. Big approach, which typically involves casting a large number of officers in roles designed to gain the trust and eventually the confidence of the suspect. In this version of events Sean Harris plays Henry Teague, the criminal, and Joel Edgerton plays Mark Frame, the investigating officer, who works largely “unprotected and unobserved, apart from the recording equipment” for the first part of the investigation. Other members of the police force step in for cameos, and only at the very end does it all come together as an ensemble acting effort.
The result took me back to the slow burn of the Australian indie 90s – the second new wave – particularly claustrophobic psychodramas like The Boys, The Interview and Praise that seemed to retreat from, and deliberately dismantle, the Aussie archetypes established during the 70s and 80s renaissance. This was above all a cinema of scepticism, and The Stranger follows in that path, using the sting operation to meditate upon the broader blind spots and disavowed remainders of Australian masculinity. To that end, Wright starts with two men coming together without any context – Henry and Paul Emery, the first undercover officer he meets, played by Steve Mouzakis – in a dislocated and mobile space – an all-night bus coach – by way of an elliptical anecdote about arriving home, and not recognising it as home. From here, the film largely inhabits a darkness that is too pronounced to be restricted to sight alone, and a silence too emphatic to be the mere absence of noise. Call it an audible darkness, a visible silence, a textural void that infuses the shared nightmares of Henry and Mark, which quickly become the substrate of the narrative, and in turn become indistinguishable from one another. So embedded does this folie a deux become in the fabric of the film that in order to wrench Henry and Mark out of it, or pivot them from one nightmare to the next, Wright resorts to violently dissonant cuts that often make it feel like Netflix itself has cut out as well.
That tactile fusion of darkness and silence is all the more striking in that the sting is set in one of the brightest parts of Australia – the Indian Ocean coastline, where the desert meets the sea. This must be the darkest film ever shot in Western Australia, but also the most attuned to the harsh brilliance of light in this part of the country, which prompts everyone to retreat to the deepest shadows they can find, but also makes total escape impossible. Light here is so potent that even the most inadvertent and incidental flashes are enough to prevent your eyes ever quite acclimatising to the dark, evoking lives played out in the shadows, a closeted series of desires embedded in the most visible and radiant versions of Australian masculinity. Wright is just as circumspect about the ocean as a reflector and intensifier of light too, avoiding the sea whenever possible, or subsuming it into the “black lake” Henry sees hovering in front of his eye, and which soon comes to infect Mark’s perception during the stint as well.
Caught between insatiable darkness and light, The Stranger thus unfolds in an eerie twilight world. The road where Henry made contact with the undercover officer, and the road where he took his victim, expand into a more cosmic interplay of light and shadow, starting with the recurring shots of lane markers flickering across the asphalt void that expand and swallow up every other space in the film. There’s little in the way of recreating the crime scene here excerpt this morbid and malleable sense of the road, which becomes a void, a nebula, a portal to a cosmic unconscious space that hangs in the air whenever blokes talk, and is projected into the amorphous flickers and flashes that start to pepper the backdrops, like a displaced Aurora Australis, a direct dispatch from deep in the Aussie male unconscious. Yet the road is never quite smooth, fluid or expansive enough to resolve this space that it throws into relief, instead offering us an aleatory angle on roadside Australia, a series of fragments that refuse to fully congeal into a romantic frontier, horizon or threshold. In fact, the more time we spend on the road, the more it erodes any sense of this horizon, or even of progression through space, much as the darknesses of the film only become more claustrophobic as they expand.
Through this darkness, and the road that sustains it (the road where the sting operation begins), Wright immerses us in the connective tissue of Australian masculinity – everything unspoken and disavowed in the normal interactions between Aussie blokes. To catch Henry, the police realise, they have to lure him into a homosocial fraternity, trap him into a romance as much as a confession (and by the end of the film, the two are basically the same thing). More ineffably, they have to elicit and hold his gaze, which means providing him with the darkness to feel comfortable in his gaze, producing a film in which eyes are nearly always in shadow, or only partly illuminated, and every sightline is furtive and fleeting, hidden in plain sight. The tactile hush of the film quickly coalesces around an aesthetic of gay cruising, a searching for contact just below the threshold of blokey visibility, much as Mark’s directives play as a guide to gay cruising: “You have to weigh the balance of the closeness you could form against your own vulnerability.” As Mark develops a rapport with Henry, the men bond through moments of almost intangible sensory proximity, as when Henry reaches out to remove a piece of fluff from Mark’s jacket, and makes momentary eye contact in the process.
So visceral and embodied is this rapport that Mark needs to pursue a genuine connection with Henry to make the sting feasible. Not only does he have to cultivate a brooding introspection to tap into Henry’s closeted anxiety, but he has to participate in it himself as well. Despite the contemptuous criticism of a superior officer, Mark backs himself to use his real name in the operation, and can only play the role because he has unresolved masculine issues of his own, among them a total breakdown in his communication with his ex-wife. While Henry never directly comes out as gay to Mark, he frequently comments on their shared inability to occupy an Aussie masculine idea through exotic and arcane euphemisms. At one point, he tells Mark that “we see through to the other side, you and me, that’s why we get on so well.” At another point, he confesses that he is into amputees, and that he likes Mark because he reminds him of an amputee. All of these semi-confessions culminate with the most extraordinary scene of the film, in which Henry puts on Icehouse’s “Trojan Blue” and almost-dances to it, contorting his body as if to an evoke an incompletion he and Mark share.
Of course, Mark’s relationship with Henry is ultimately the prelude to the main (set) piece of the puzzle – Henry’s initiation into a criminal fraternity, all played by police officers who demand that he tell them his entire criminal history before he joins their ranks. In many ways, this group feels like Henry’s fantasy – an all-inclusive group of men that transcends all other codes, actions and histories; a blokey institution that accepts him unequivocally and unquestioningly for the first time; and an absolution for his criminal history from the world of blokedom that once seemed antithetical to it. It’s as if the whole operation emerged straight from Henry’s unconscious, like a phantasm of the very specific absolution that he needs – from the core of the Aussie bloke idea, from a collection of men with archetypal ocker names, from the dismay that overcame him the moment he married a woman. For the first thing Henry confesses is that he took his victim to the church where he married his wife, absolving himself of both the crime and his inability to live with a woman in one utterance, and collapsing the farthest fringes of Aussie masculinity back into blokedom at its most normative.
The fact that this whole process is an act, however, further implodes the homeliness of Aussie masculinity, and its capacity to define home and homeland. It’s appropriate that the only non-man we see in the film is not even a woman, but a non-binary Indigenous police officer, as well as the chief investigator of the case, Detective Senior Constable Kate Rylett, played by Jada Alberts. Kate sets up the sting operation in a parallel narrative that ends where the main narrative begins, before returning to run the final discovery of the crime scene, underpinning the case with a fundamentally different notion of homeland from that valorised by Henry and Mark, both of whose domestic lives gradually dissociate into elusive abstractions of light and shadow, black and white, under Kate’s purview: “It’s dark – I step out the front of my house and this feeling of lightness comes over me.” As the murky depths of Aussie blokedom squint their eyes, and come into visibility, the script reduces Aussie vernacular to its atomic primitives, and then to the silence between words, the unspoken beats and pauses. In one of the most memorable scenes, Kate receives a critical break in the investigation at an RSL Club, but has to wait for the daily minute’s silence to hear all the information. The hush of the closet, and the hushed reverence for fallen soldiers, come together here, collapsing what remains simply unspoken and actually repressed within the ideals of Australian masculinity.
Insofar as The Stranger returns to the original crime scene, the Sunshine Coast underpass, it’s only as a condensation of this same hushed visual and auditory scheme – a small sliver of shade in the midst of the blazing Queensland sun, three minutes of total darkness bookended by the bright clarity of the events that precede and succeed the moment of the crime. Similarly, when Henry takes Mark to the place where he left the body, the light brightens again, his gaze becomes clearer, and the film briefly glimpses a regular lighting scheme, as if, through this one case, Australian masculinity is about to be purged and purified. Yet Mark and Henry remain linked to the last, as Wright returns to the motif that structures the film – a looming mountain, blocking a brilliant sky – and Mark dreams of a tape recorder of Henry’s voice that never stops playing, even when he tries to turn it off. Wright never answers the questions he raises about Aussie blokedom here – his achievement is to keep them open as questions, to make us ponder how much of what is received as the ideal of Australian masculinity is based on disavowal, repression and a perversion that has learned to live in plain sight. And the film ends on that cusp of repression and normality, with a tactile intake of breath from Mark, but no exhalation, no certainty of centring himself in this culture any more.