The Strange Ones (2018)
A friend of mine once told me of a crisis in her childhood; she had, as a young teen, accused accused her adoptive father of an act of terrifying near-violence towards her. She later admitted this accusation wasn’t true, a conjuration of her bruised and jumbled psyche, as the incident had really taken place with her birth father some time before that. I thought of her story watching The Strange Ones, a film that tries to comprehend the splintered headspace of a deeply traumatised person. High school-aged boy Sam (James Freedson-Jackson) is travelling across country with a grown man, Nick (Alex Pettyfer), introducing themselves as brothers as they negotiate a landscape of interchangeable motel rooms and diners whilst driving into forested regions. Nick is a brawny, tattoo-festooned hunk of rough trade, and whilst he and Sam are supposed to be travelling to a cabin in the woods Nick has inherited, Nick successfully uses his sex appeal to land them a permanent niche living in a small hotel in a backwater through romancing lonely desk clerk Kelly (Emily Althaus). Sam spoils the arrangement by provoking and insulting her whilst calling her attention to the fact she has no idea who Nick really is. Nick gives the lad a slap in the face for his pains. Seemingly ordinary gestures between brothers soon prove to possibly have a stranger, uglier import. Sam catches sight of Nick masturbating in the shower, and Kelly observes the detail they’ve only used one bed, perhaps sleeping together in fraternal care or perhaps for less savoury reasons.
Is Sam Nick’s captive? His lover? His partner in some obscure crime or adventure? A hint of just what they’re running from is dropped when they watch a TV news report on the recovery of a body from a burned-down house. Sam’s baleful warning to Kelly first clearly signals there’s something grim driving them along. Pettyfer and Freedson-Jackson’s performances are vital in the film’s early stages in striking ambiguous postures of attitude and intent: Pettyfer proves surprisingly agile stepping between shades of brotherly care and sinister opacity, whilst Freedson-Jackson portrays a lad with smarts and verbal dexterity who is nonetheless caught in churning bewilderment, distraught over some event that may or may not have happened. At first Sam’s dialogue with Nick, pressing him to try and get it on with Kelly, seems like precocious, laddish banter, but quickly proves to have perverse facets, hints of jealousy and cruelty hatching out in his memorable speech to Kelly. When they arrive at the cabin, Nick and Sam seem to find the calm space they’re seeking, with Nick teaching Sam how to shoot and enjoying the leafy seclusion. One day, however, a bullet comes whizzing out of the bushes at them, fired by a closing cordon of policemen.
Many contemporary filmmakers toy with structuring and distorting audience perception with their cinema, but The Strange Ones is one of the few I’ve seen of late that does so with a specific purpose, as directors Laura Wolkstein and Christopher Radcliff attempt to recreate the perspective of a deeply disturbed mind, to offer the audience a what it's like to be a person for whom life feels like a waking dream and dreams might actually be memories. The fly-by-night, blankly anonymous infrastructure of roadside America exacerbates the sensation of detachment and liquid perception. Locations and people blur into each-other. A coffee cup seems to vanish from the table before Sam as Nick encourages him to rewrite his reality with his mind. Wolkstein and Radcliff, working from Radcliff’s script, evoke a certain bygone brand of small-scale drama here, the sorts of ambling tales of footloose outsiders and alienated youth looking for a toehold in the world you’d find in early independent and regionally made films, a breed given birth to by the likes of Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and The Young Stranger (1957). The score, by Brian McOmber, with its eerie, flute-dominated music, plays up the resemblance as many films of this type had such scores in the 1960s and ‘70s.
But the familiarity quickly dissolves along with sureness as to what exactly is going on with Nick and Sam, and Wolkstein and Radcliff (who also edited) blur boundaries so successfully in the film’s opening act that it’s impossible to tell exactly what genre we’re in – the woozy feeling of destabilised reality where objects disappear and time seems to be folding back on itself could easily be taking place in a sci-fi or horror film. Once they reach the cabin, Nick shows Sam a cave on the property he remembers spending a night sleeping in and emerging the next day feeling like a different person. Sam keeps seeing a black cat, which proves eventually to have been his pet and haunts his perceptions like a ghost, or a stray, recurring information glitch in his awareness. Both these motifs seem to augur something supernatural might be at play, but then we seem to be plunged into a noirish manhunt drama, before the tale at last resolves into a character study where character is nebulous and hardly knowable to itself. Reality-hacking deleria, alternate realities, and dogging familiars become rather aspects of the infrastructure of being and perceiving, and Wolkstein and Radcliff use them to communicate the feeling of being fatefully, dreadfully isolated from the main flow of life.
The drip feed of directorial clarification, deployed in disconnected visions and associative snatches, presents events and then revises them. Even when the root trauma that haunts Sam seems to be clarified, there’s a lingering sense of doubt, uncertainty as to whether it is indeed final truth or an act of self-crucifying transference. The Strange Ones slowly peels down the layers of its particular onion as it splits story essentially into two acts, the first dealing with Nick and Sam’s flight and the rest with Sam’s attempt to return to something like normality. It doesn’t help that at first he’s taken in at what seems to be a religious commune, regarded with suspicion by the other kids there, and overseen by the aged, craggy, solicitous Gary (Gene Evans). Evans’ casting seems to make a deliberate allusion to his similar role as the rather more sinister commune chieftain in Ti West’s The Sacrament (2014): Gary’s attempts to get a handle on Sam are matched by the boy’s, and the audience’s, efforts to do the same with him. Nothing is more strange, and disorientating, than amity offered without any apparent price to someone unused to it, as the various forms care and shelter offered to young Sam each carry a faint charge of discomforting import. Turns out the price is one Sam least wants to pay: to face up to where he’s come from.
Sam seems doomed to be one of those individuals who can never find a genuine safe harbour in the world, prey for the many free-roving exploiters on hand. But the filmmakers continue to dance around clichés, as Sam’s young would-be girlfriend Sarah (Olivia Wang) proves to be rather bolder in taking liberties, in a scene laced with tragicomic queasiness, than any adults are actively seen to be, and Sam’s feelings of security and sureness with Nick become more coherent and understandable, whatever abusive aspect it might have had. The film’s last quarter does at last seem to offer some concrete depictions of what happened to drive Sam and Nick out on the road. Ironically, it’s also here where The Strange Ones starts to stumble, moving through a succession of codas that dangles one fate for Sam before us but then substitutes another, and suggesting that whilst the narrative demands a crystallising moment of revelation, and provides it, some extra dimension is still unresolved: it might be easier for young Sam to believe himself a monster than to believe it of the various figures he’s loved. Either way, Wolkstein and Radcliff can’t quite put it across, and so the film feels a touch distended even at a very terse 80 minutes’ running time. The Strange Ones is nonetheless an arresting and intriguing mission statement from some filmmakers who seem to have real potential.