The Strange Ones already spent time on the festival circuit in 2017 – earning awards at SXSW, BAM Cinema Fest, Greenwich International Film Festival, and others – before being made available exclusively through DIRECTV starting December 7, 2017 and is now receiving a theatrical release in 2018. Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein’s mysterious The Strange Ones receives is a film that’s more dream-state paranoia than linear narrative. It is the story of two travelers making their way along back roads through rural America to reach a cabin in the woods. Who they are, why they’re going, and what happens next is all up for debate as the story offers answers that are frequently ambiguous even in their concreteness.
The whole of The Strange Ones feels like experiencing hypnagogia – a neurological phenomenon we experience when we’re simultaneously asleep and awake. If you’ve ever experienced seeing or hearing strange things when you think you’re awake, chances are you’re in the throes of hypnagogia. Though The Strange Ones begins as a fairly straight-forward character-driven mystery, it slowly reveals itself as a psychological thriller where nothing we observe may be real at all. In two different instances, James Freedson-Jackson’s Sam, a young boy accompanied on this journey by Alex Pettyfer’s Nick, is told that he can decide what’s real and what’s not. It’s his mind, so he gets to dictate his own reality. Though intended as a means of comforting Sam who seems beyond his depth, it’s also an emphatic warning to the audience: what you see is the creation of someone else’s will. It’s a risky narrative maneuver to make it so vastly clear to the audience that they’re being tricked, but – by and large – the performances by Freedson-Jackson and Pettyfer pull you in so deeply that you’ll forget this notion until you need to remember. So ambiguous is the structure, the location of their trip is largely irrelevant, even though the journey is central to the narrative. If not for a lingering moment on a North Carolina license plate, not a single anchoring detail of place or time is provided. Like a dream where you hop from place to place, moment to moment, so does The Strange Ones, seemingly adrift on a linear course.
As we weave in and out of this perpetual dream-state and the stakes increase, the narrative predominantly rises to the challenge of keeping the tension high and answers vague. Unfortunately, the further Sam and Nick progress on their adventure toward its conclusion, the story falls prey to its own enigmatic narrative, requiring that it pull itself up hard back to reality, before it becomes too esoteric. By doing so, all the answers, which are bread-crumbed out for audience interpretation, become material and less alluring.
Maintaining the illusion of a speculative narrative, Radcliff and Wolkstein imbue The Strange Ones with a voyeuristic quality from beginning to end. The camera, typically a fixed point as it shifts from perspective to perspective, is nearly always moving inward, closing in on whatever object or individual is framed in the center. Though a tad distracting when you notice it, the tightening of the camera upon its subject – whatever it may be – inserts an importance, a significance, upon that subject. Perhaps the world is growing smaller as Sam and Nick’s journey continues or maybe it’s to signify the closing in of Sam’s reality; but whatever it is, the focus is always tight and insular. Combined with the frequently ethereal ambient soundtrack Radcliff and Wolkstein use to augment the quieter moments, sound melds together with images, blurring the lines between real and fiction like a fever dream.
Technically speaking, The Strange Ones fires on all cylinders to create an engaging work; yet, without the performances from Freedson-Jackson and Pettyfer, it wouldn’t work at all. Freedson-Jackson (Cop Car/Jessica Jones) is absolutely chilling as the apathetic, bordering on sociopathic Sam. With an emotionless face, Sam tells story after story, unsure if he even believes what he says. Conversely, Pettyfer (Magic Mike/Endless Love) plays Nick much more open, soft, and nurturing as Sam’s caretaker. There’s nothing about Nick that feels false or troubling, even though the circumstances of their journey suggest otherwise. This is in large part to their brilliant performances, which subtly lay out the power dynamic between the two. Though it may appear initially difficult to understand, like any good mystery, the truth unveils itself in defiance of expectations. They are not the only actors in the film – notable supporting performances by Emily Althaus (Orange is the New Black) as Kelly, an office manager for a roadside resort the boys take shelter in, and Gene Jones (The Hateful Eight) as Gary, the headmaster for a camp Sam stumbles across, help flesh out some of the narrative’s less solid areas – but it’s their performances that lock down The Strange Ones as a creepy, enthralling tale.
Films which revolve around mystery must stick the landing in order for the film to feel worthy of the audience’s time. Though The Strange Ones features strong performances – especially by Freedson-Jackson – and the cinematography successfully evokes the uncertain, fever-dream state the narrative requires to maintain its mysterious aura, the climax fails to deliver a strong twist that audiences crave. Instead, it feels more like the writers are trying to beat the audience with the answers while trying to maintain the art house, experimental feel. Bold, for certain, but it lacks the subtly that the rest of the film maintains. If nothing else, The Strange Ones is a daring first feature film for Radcliff and Wolkstein, which will certainly whet audiences’s appetite for their next offering.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.