Newly arrived in the remote Australian desert town of Nathgari, Catherine (Nicole Kidman) and Matt Parker (Joseph Fiennes) are trying to adjust, when their two teenage children, Lily and Tom disappear in the desert, just as a massive dust storm is about to hit. Rumours start swirling about what could have happened to children and, with temperatures rising and the chances of survival plummeting with each passing day, Catherine and Matthew find themselves pushed to the brink.
An image recurs in Strangerland, Kim Farrant’s woozy, enigmatic feature debut: an aerial sierra landscape of reds and browns, mountains and brush, bisected by a line of tiny men in unnaturally bright, orange jumpsuits. The line inches across the screen as the men search the ground for clues, individually and as one. Some version of this image is a stock element of the missing persons thriller; the younger and prettier the missing person, the more prolonged and vigilant the search. In Strangerland, the search party comprises about two dozen figures, and the sight of them trawling a vast expanse of Australian outback is a picture, not of hope and valiant effort, but of futility, incongruity, and despair.
The image is also of a piece with the film’s guiding theme, which has something to do with the failure of imagination that would result in human beings inhabiting terrain better suited to the hard-backed insects that screech their claim on the desert throughout Strangerland. That and other failures have brought the Parker family, Catherine (Nicole Kidman), Matthew (Joseph Fiennes), and their two very pretty children, 15-year-old Lily (Maddison Brown) and little brother Tom (Nicholas Hamilton) to the fictional Australian town of Nathgari. Not long after their arrival, Lily and Tom, disgusted with their sudden posting in a “shithole” town, and with their parents, vanish from their home and into the night.
The disappearance of Lily and Tom triggers an ill-defined investigation, led by a local detective played by Hugo Weaving, and an equally murky series of revelations about the Parker family, specifically the unstable Catherine. Lily, it turns out, exhibited a promiscuity that may have been based in compulsion. Pursuing the root of that compulsion turns suspicion first on a group of local boys, then a slow-minded Aboriginal neighbour (Meyne Wyatt), and finally, if briefly, on Matthew. But Strangerland is only a half-hearted procedural, which means its many provocative twists and thematic sallies lack the development that would bring a sense of maturation or substance to the story.
It also means that resolving the fate of Tom and Lily is beside Farrant’s point. What concerns her (and the script, co-written by Fiona Seres and Michael Kinirons) more directly is the effect of the disappearance of their children on Catherine and Matthew. Matthew becomes paralysed, then prone to violent rage. Catherine has the more curious response: learning of her daughter’s advanced sexuality seems to trigger a wanton impulse in the mother. Kidman grounds Catherine’s pathetic need in a sense of raw human distress, but her character is too vaguely drawn, too subject to gauzy allusion. So is the loaded idea, floated and then allowed to drift away, that Lily’s apparently helpless promiscuity was bred in the bone. Aiming for meaningful ambiguity, a charged indirection, Farrant leaves too much to the imagination, and her characters suffer for it.
The desert, then, has burned all artifice from this couple, who sweat and pinken in the sun, and has taken their children, too. “Kids go missing out here,” an Aboriginal grandmother tells the desperate Catherine. “It’s the land.” A sandstorm chokes the town, perched on the edge of a well-photographed (by Irish cinematographer P.J. Dillon) desert abyss. Separately, Catherine and Matthew are drawn “out there,” to search the cracked immensity for a sign not just of life but of something beloved.
Strangerland flirts with the mystic and the primal, the raw and the metaphysical, subverting the usual missing child-genre trappings where it finds them. But Farrant doesn’t stray far enough from the form to create something persuasive in its own strange, melancholy right. Instead, her film sits rather awkwardly, and frustratingly, between here and there, sure of what it doesn’t want to do and say, but not quite settled on what it does.