Writer/director Dustin Feneley’s feature film debut, Stray, is a bold swing. An exercise in minimalism, the dialogue is scant, pans are few, scoring is largely absent, and narrative points are inferred more than directly stated. Aspects of this does translate to a little difficulty engaging with the material, but thanks to mesmerizing performances and intimate direction, Stray encourages the audience to lean in as Feneley presents a slice of life dramatic tale of loss and healing.
Two strangers find themselves on a collision course with each other, meeting at a time when interpersonal connection seems all but lost to them. Newly released from prison, Jack (Kieran Charnock) heads to the isolation of a family cabin after losing his job as he continues to mourn the event which put him behind bars years before. Newly released from a medical center, Grace (Arta Dobroshi) wanders from home to home, breaking in where she has to, seeking shelter and food as no one is there to pick her up. When the two cross paths, an opportunity for healing begins merely by each of them being close to someone else.
From the opening of the film, Feneley clues the audience to a different kind of story. A slow fade-in reveals only dense white-grey fog from which a still figure is gently revealed. From here, the audience is first introduced to Jack, waking from his sleep. Both scenes signal exactly how Feneley is going to approach the rest of Stray: with excessive patience. The camera rarely moves, actors moving in-and-out of scenes while the audience’s perspective holds. This means that we watch as Jack slowly wakes, sits up, and kneels before his bed. We watch as he meets with his case handler. We watch as Jack paces in-and-out of the hallway where his phone hangs on the wall, the camera serving as an unblinking eye that shows us everything, yet gives nothing away. Building off this, Feneley is sparing with the dialogue as well. It’s several minutes into the film before its used and it’s a long-take between Jack and his case handler. The audience already knows that Jack is troubled, haunted by the figure in the fog, and this conversation helps to add some color to who Jack is. This is literally all the audience has to go on for the bulk of the film. Typically dialogue would be used as exposition, yet Feneley rarely relies upon it; instead, he uses context and performance to convey meaning.
One can’t help but wonder if this minimalistic approach is intended to enhance or frustrate the audience. As an enhancement tool, the lack of accompanying scoring audiences are used to turns into something more naturalistic as we hear the same sounds as our characters. This reliance on diegetic sound supports the internal aspects Stray activates for its entire length. It wants the audience to be pulled into the tale, to experience the rawness of it, just as the characters do. There’s also an argument that the lack of scoring enhances the growing sense of loneliness Jack and Grace feel as outsiders to society. The camerawork, as expressed above, is precise as a means of controlling what we see and when, imbuing the tale with a sense of being boxed in inside the frame with Jack and Grace. The first pan, for instance, only happens when Jack goes on a nature walk. Starting in the bottom right corner, the camera follows as Jack moves up and across to the left. This simple camera movement signifies the first time we observe Jack feeling free; without borders or boundaries. We don’t see where he goes, nor do we know why. We simply get the feeling that he’s no longer boxed in by circumstance. He’s moving somewhere. The thing is, though, that with the minimalism comes a growing sense of emptiness that rivals that which Jack and Grace feel, just from the audience. We hunger for answers, for information, that rarely comes. If not for the scant dialogue we’re given, we’d have no sense of why Jack comes to this cabin, why he’s in such existential pain, and much more. In fact, Grace herself is only a minor part of the film, and her inclusion is not essential to Jack’s story. The minimalism removes a concreteness to their relationship, a signifier making it clear why these two form a connection at all beyond their mutual longing for human connection.
As the two leading the film, Charnock and Dobroshi do a great deal of communication via physical performance. Charnock, on his own, commands attention, but Dobroshi’s presence enables Charnock to present a different side of Jack. It’s impressive how the actors still manage to make their character seem grounded, even with limited dialogue to articulate intent or desire. Via their physical performances, the audience understands the depth of their pain and loneliness, their seeming alienation from regular life. Despite strong performances from the leads, it remains difficult to grasp the characters’ desires. Certainly, both actors do immense physical work, it’s just that their needs remain abstract throughout Stray, making choices seem confusing. For instance, Grace is depicted as making choices out of desperation, which Dobroshi presents with ease via physicality; whereas, we more easily infer Jack’s are due to a sense of compulsion and grief via context. When we meet Grace, she’s leaving an institution and ends up breaking into a house for shelter. The audience can only infer that she has nowhere to go and is recovering from some kind of mental instability. Later, when Grace and Jack meet, they connect almost immediately and under strange circumstances. For her, Jack seems to represent a normalcy she’s been missing, whereas she represents, to Jack, a physical connection he’s missed between his time in prison and his self-quarantine in the cabin. The performances from Charnock and Dobroshi assist in filling in the gaps via suggestion by way of presentation. They equally convey the solitude their respective characters feel and the elation of finding someone to sit across the table from. Though Dobroshi is in Stray for a significantly smaller portion of the film, her contribution remains significant as a means of opening Jack up. Conversely, it’s unclear if Grace gains anything from Jack, other than a semi-permanent residence.
There’s a deftness to Feneley’s direction that’s laudable. It’s a precision and control that communicates the continued isolation the characters of the story feel, even when in the open air. He conveys the almost constant stress of a tortured mind, unable to let go of the past, in such a way as to make the audience itself feel claustrophobic. The story itself, however, as compelling as it is, is almost too open-ended, even for a “slice of life” story. We know there was story before and it will continue after the film ends, but what happens from intro scene to end credits seems a touch incomplete due to the lack of details. Life is, especially right now, a frustrating experience with all the things we don’t know and can’t control. This makes the trials of Jack and Grace incredibly relatable, even if minutely. Except so much of it is internal, it’s difficult to infer if a journey has taken place within this brief window the audience is given access to. That said, there’s an impressive amount of talent behind and in front of the camera that the experience of Stray doesn’t feel wasted in the slightest. There’s merely a sense of frustrated confusion, as though the fog at the start didn’t entirely lift.
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD beginning March 24th, 2020. For more information, head to the official Stray website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.