Maybe the dingo ate their screenplay.
Suffering through the Australian outback mood piece “Strangerland” is a little like being stuck in a hotel room next to a loud couple that keep bickering, playing annoying music and slamming doors. The irritation factor outweighs the intrigue by a measure of 10-to-1.
What makes this movie even more frustrating is the glimpse of the opportunity lost. You have a first-rate cast starring in a noir-ish, ambiguous, atmospheric mystery set in an eerie town so removed from modern urban life it might as well be set on Mars. The cinematography is haunting and beautiful, and the setup has us guessing.
For about a half hour, that is. From that point forward, instead of asking whodunit, I was wondering: Why’d they make this abomination?
At the heart of the story are the Parkers, one of the more messed-up nuclear families in recent movie memory. Nicole Kidman’s Catherine and Joseph Fiennes’ Matthew have moved with their teenage daughter Lily (Maddison Brown) and younger son Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton) from the big city to a dust-covered, economically depressed small town where everybody knows everyone else’s business and the locals still believe in age-old aboriginal myths about the land swallowing up children who wander off.
It’s a seemingly loveless marriage. Catherine and Matthew sleep in separate bedrooms and are constantly arguing about their children. Matthew drinks too much and always seems to be on the brink of exploding with rage. Catherine is bored to tears. They’re so consumed by their own miserable lot they can be hardly be bothered to keep track of their children.
Little Tommy, who’s about 10, likes to go for long, aimless walks in the middle of the night. (His pops watches as the boy wanders off. His mom says things like, “You’ve got to stop doing that.” Way to get involved, folks.)
Meanwhile, 15-year-old Lily is a clearly troubled, apparently sexually voracious temptress who is having relations with the mentally challenged local man who is painting the family’s house and at least one skateboarding party punk. Whatever happened in this girl’s life to make her act out like this, she needs immediate and intense help — not parents who shake their heads in frustration at her exploits.
Matthew and Catherine are so neglectful, it takes them nearly a full day to realize their children have gone missing. Once Hugo Weaving’s Detective Rae takes on the case, we learn some dark secrets about the Parkers, including the real reason why they moved to this remote locale. Along the way, “Strangerland” goes from intriguing to sordid to implausible and maddening.
The screenplay by Michael Kinirons and Fiona Seres, and the direction by Kim Farrant, yank us this way and that, presenting myriad scenarios for what might have happened to Lilly and Tommy. Did they wander into the night and get swallowed in a dust storm? Has Lilly run off with one of these men who shouldn’t even be looking at a girl her age? Does this current disappearance have a connection to a previous time when Lilly ran away? Should the investigation center on Matthew and/or Catherine?
An obnoxiously ominous score is employed in nearly every transitional scene as we see long tracking shots reminding us of the vast and unforgiving Australian countryside. When outraged characters knock on doors, the pounding is overamplified. Supporting characters are revealed to have dark secrets of their own.
Matthew acts more like a jealous, possessive stalker than a concerned father. When he suspects someone of harming his daughter, his solution is to find them and beat them to within an inch of their lives. In the meantime, Catherine spirals into a zombie-like state as she obsesses over Lilly’s shocking diary, and at one point even puts on her daughter’s clothes and engages in an unbelievably sordid encounter with one of the men who was with her daughter.
Finally, “Strangerland” runs out of gas, leaving us with a couple of final “Forget You” (shall we say) moments. Thanks. Thanks for nothing.
Alchemy presents a film directed by Kim Farrant and written by Fiona Seres and Michael Kinirons. Running time: 111 minutes. Rated R (for language, some sexuality and brief graphic nudity). Opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.