top of page

The Stranger

Released 2022. Director: Thomas M. Wright

ALTHOUGH THE STRANGER IS BASED ON THE CASE OF 13-year-old Daniel Morcombe, who went missing while waiting for a bus in Sunshine Coast, Queensland, in late 2003, his name has been changed along with some other details (such as dates). The family reportedly has had no participation in the making of the movie, which doesn’t focus on the boy but rather, the sting operation that eventually nabbed the man who abducted and killed Daniel.

The perpetrator is called Henry Teague and played by English actor Sean Harris. As the movie starts, we see Henry on a night bus on the way to Western Australia. The reticent middle-aged man strikes up an acquaintance with a fellow passenger named Paul, who hooks up Henry to work for a criminal group. Henry’s handler is Mark, played by Joel Edgerton, who promises Henry will be looked after as long as he’s completely honest with them.

There's something very important that Henry doesn't know, but we the audience do. It doesn’t take long for director Thomas M. Wright to reveal that Mark, and indeed, everyone else in the enterprise, are undercover cops. The true identity of these men is not an element for a plot twist saved for the final moments. By revealing their true motive early on, the movie can now engage us on a deeper level to appreciate what’s at stake. The relentless focus of the movie is on the uneasy relationship between the pursuer and the target, not among criminals.

The Stranger begins to take shape as an account of how to gain the complete trust of a murderer to elicit a confession. As Mark and Henry spend more time together, the strain begins to tighten its noose around Mark. The cop has a young son and in time he begins to relate to the case on a personal level. His protective instinct is heightened. He suffers from nightmares where the monster he’s after gains the upper hand. Joel Edgerton puts up a fine performance as a father/cop struggling to keep his sanity in check while carrying on with the masquerade.

Henry remains a creepy character and Harris’s performance does not in any way humanise a child killer. His pitchy and whispery voice, shifty eyes and odd body language add to the uncertainty in his character. Often appearing submissive with a nervous energy, Henry makes it hard to guess his next move. There’s a scene in Henry’s house when Mark tries to leave and Henry quietly insists he stay and puts on a record, then starts to sway and dance. A moment of ambiguity and anxiety that reminds the cop (and the audience) you never know what’s in the killer’s mind, or that he might strike at any time. Gives Trojan Blue by Icehouse a completely different vibe.

The criminal activities that Mark and the other cops organise involving Henry are detailed and convincing. Burning car, fake passports, bundles of cash, relocating, mystery packages. Never for a moment does Henry suspect he’s being played or surveilled. The interstate operation doesn’t always proceed smoothly when the various chiefs have different ideas. The weight of disguise invariably falls on Mark to keep up the dangerous charade with his own safety on the line. Often operating in remote areas unprotected, unobserved, with no back-up and keeping up a false front in the face of a dangerous criminal, indeed Mark’s vulnerability and exposure is what keeps the tension high.

The similarities in the physical appearance between the cop and the murderer are hard to miss. With their greying hair pulled back tight into a pony tail, grizzly beard and identical build, the two men mirror each other, as highlighted in the movie’s promo image. What appears to be either Mark or Henry is actually half and half, an expression of the men getting under each other’s skin, especially of the cop burrowing deeper in his disguise and in turn, the quarry embedding himself in his nightmare.

The Stranger is a muted psychological thriller that dispenses with any depiction of violence. Even the arrest, when it eventually happens after arduous debate regarding timing, is remarkably undramatic. This is a slow-burn, gruff, character-driven and masculine take on an elaborate sting operation with an oppressively dark atmosphere and a pair of sharp and intense performances.

Click image above to view trailer. New window will open.


bottom of page