Strangerland

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Why can’t all bad movies be ugly to look at and pitifully acted? Why must there be movies like the sluggish Australian melodrama “Strangerland” — overlong, ambiguous, and unsatisfying, yet marked by beautiful cinematography and a few terrific performances? Such duality makes it hard to reduce movies into a simple Fresh or Rotten.

“Strangerland,” from first-time filmmaker Kim Farrant, stars Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes as Catherine and Matthew Parker, parents who have just moved their family to the hot, dusty, “s***hole of a town” of Nathgari, way out in the middle of nowhere. Matthew is a pharmacist; Catherine spends her days wilting in the heat like a Tennessee William heroine, rubbing ice cubes on her neck. We aren’t told right away what prompted the move to Nathgari, only that it was necessary and nobody liked it.

Their kids, skanky Lily (Maddison Brown), 15, and sullen Tom (Nicholas Hamilton), about 12, have already fallen in with the depressed youth of the village, spending their afternoons at a makeshift skatepark. When Matthew gives the kids money for ice cream, he includes a command for Tom: “Don’t let her” — that is, Tom’s older sister — “out of your sight.” Not immediately but soon, Lily and Tom both disappear without a trace. Lily has run away before, but Tom hasn’t. Suspecting foul play, local cop David Rae (Hugo Weaving) talks to dirty skater boy Steve (Sean Keenan) and addle-pated Aborigine youth Burtie (Meyne Wyatt), both known to be Lily’s associates. Catherine, meanwhile, is convinced the children got lost in the perilous Australian desert. (Spoiler alert: they were not taken by dingos.)

Det. Rae’s investigation drags family secrets out of hiding, giving the townsfolk, already suspicious of the newcomers, new things to gossip about. Matthew acts furtively, either leading his own investigation or covering something up. Catherine weeps, yells, and behaves strangely in her own way, emulating her daughter’s exhibitionism and general sauciness.

But I fear I have made this sound more interesting than it is. Farrant lets the pace drag interminably, parceling out legitimate plot points mixed with obscure tangents (like an appeal to an Aboriginal mystic). She’s not interested in solving the mystery as much as she is in conveying a dreary, bleary tone. The gorgeous Australian landscapes suggest the hopelessness of being lost in such a vast place, but Farrant denies us the satisfaction of a coherent, rational ending to the story.

Weaving makes for a likably disheveled cop, and Kidman’s dramatic range remains impressive, even when she’s doing ridiculous things like throwing herself at neighborhood boys. Newcomer Maddison Brown plays Lily with a sultry sadness that hints at a larger, better story, not to mention a successful career ahead for the actress. But “Strangerland” is a letdown, a slow-moving trip to nowhere.

C (1 hr., 52 min.; R, scattered F-words, some sexuality, some nonsexual nudity, a little violence.)

Originally published at GeekNation.

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