The Strange Ones is the sort of thriller where you spend a great deal of time on a relationship mystery. Who are these people? Why are they together? What happened to bring them together? When the direction of this story comes into focus, it’s almost shocking to consider this was the where we were headed.
That’s not to say The Strange Ones is bad. Not the case. It is a solid, albeit thin thriller that is a terrific exercise in style over any marked substance in the end. The dynamic between Nick and Sam, two “brothers” barely able to contain deep, dark secrets, is unsettling to say the least; Alex Pettyfer and James Freedson-Jackson as Nick and Sam, respectively, are worth the time to live in this bleak world. The older Nick and the teenage Sam are traveling across the country, running from something, hiding in plan sight and giving off enough weird vibes to the people they meet along the way to convince even the thickest of heads something is amiss.
Director’s Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein invoke Terrence Malick’s Badlands, but this version of the Midwest is in barren towns, gas stations along the sides of roads long forgotten, and motels relying on nonexistent traffic to keep the lights on. Cinematographer Todd Banhanzi captures some of the beauty of the region high in the clouds, but down on the surface, with these two mysterious people, his camera is urgent and oppressive.
At a quick 82-minute clip, The Strange Ones manages to keep us guessing well into the final scenes. The story, written by Radcliff and Woklstein as well, takes contained little twists within scenes to keep things askew at just the right amount. In an early conversation, Nick tells a despondent Sam “nothing that happened before this trip. Unless you want it to.” The scene plays out with a suggestion of dream logic before subtly shifting gears, and the film moves from one type of story to another.
Pettyfer and Freedson-Jackson are terrific at keeping the wire taut. Freedson-Jackson is especially arresting as Sam, the traumatized younger traveler with broken eyes and always teetering right on the edge of a nervous breakdown. The performances might feel a little too stilted, maybe even a little suffocated from time to time; perhaps that was Radcliff and Wolkstein’s intention, however, to not allow these two lost souls a second to exhale. If that was the idea all along, then they succeeded. It makes the final act even more arresting, when the twist lands with a much deserved authority.
The Strange Ones travels in unexpected directions, and for its ability to execute that it should be praised. More and more, these DirecTV films and VOD releases are where the new independent wave is growing. It’s the best platform for these microscopic films to find the eyes they deserve. It’s the same sort of avenue in which Jeremy Saulnier arrived via Blue Ruin a few years back. This has a similar feel. It’s a strong feature debut from this directing duo, and it should be exciting to see them sharpen their tools as their career unfolds.