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Friday, February 2, 2018

Review: THE STRANGE ONES Is A Hypnotic Thriller

Jeremiah (James Freedson-Jackson) is a young teen boy on the road with twenty-something Nick (Alex Pettyfer). Nick claims to be his older brother, taking him on a camping trip, but there's a distance to Jeremiah that immediately puts everyone he comes in contact with just a little bit off. He clearly wasn't abducted -- he has a phone, he answers a text at one point -- but... he also doesn't appear to be Nick's brother. And his name may isn't Jeremiah. And they definitely aren't going camping. But what, then, are they doing? And why is Jeremiah haunted by visions of a fire?

The Strange Ones is slow. Some people might call it hypnotic (looking at the top of this page, I did, in the end), maybe even meditative, but a lot of that depends on your mindset. What the film often is, particularly in the early going, is slow. A lot of the film is built on your slowly shifting expectations, as some playful editing fundamentally changes relationships in interesting and often disturbing ways. It doesn't always work, particularly as directors Lauren Wolkstein and Christopher Radcliff lean into some metaphysical territory that verges on incoherent, but even in its slowest moments the film manages to be attention-grabbing.

Even before we get to some of the revelations that come later in the movie, Wolkstein and Radcliffe make it obvious that this is not a story that's going to have a happy ending. James Freedson-Jackson (Cop Car) has to carry a fairly complex character who we know almost nothing about for much of the film. He's angry and possessive, with a sharp wit and a youthful arrogance that prevents him from being as careful as he should be. At first, Freedson-Jackson is frustrating, just a little bit too mature and just a little bit too reckless, but as the film progresses and we understand his character's traumatic backstory, the performance snaps into focus. Freedson-Jackson was fantastic in Cop Car, and he continues the incredibly strong streak of young teen performances here.

  The Strange Ones' tone verges on apocalyptic, laced through with a persistent dread reminiscent of something like Karyn Kusama's The Invitation, though The Strange Ones is less married to the expectations of the horror genre. While this could be called a psychological thriller, a lot of the tension comes from the filmmaking rather than the storytelling; this is the kind of movie where not a lot happens, and what does happen hits suddenly, but Wolkstein and Radcliff craft such an expressive atmosphere that you can't help but feel it. The violence in The Strange Ones is sudden, shocking, and utterly visceral in a way that I really didn't expect, but it fits the film's oppressive mood well; you know something bad is coming, and yet - if you are like me - you are unprepared for the speed and force with which it arrives.

The Strange Ones is, ultimately, a difficult movie to review. The plot is slim, and many of the narrative choices Wolkstein and Radcliff make don't totally work, though I think the film's bleak character work remains strong, both in its conception and as brought to life by Freedson-Jackson and Pettyfer. It's a movie sustained almost entirely by the lingering dread it manages to maintain and build upon through the entire film. Is it a bad idea, well-executed? I wouldn't go so far as that; there's nothing wrong with the core idea of the film, there's just not much there. And yet the haunting quality to the pacing and editing stuck with me after the film was over, a lingering mood that permeated my apartment. You either feel it or you don't, you either buy in to the despair or the movie fundamentally doesn't work. After a rough start, Wolkstein and Radcliff won me over, and The Strange Ones worked its uncomfortable magic on me.

The Strange Ones is currently streaming on demand on sites like Amazon Instant Video and iTunes. Written by Christopher Radcliff and directed by Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein, The Strange Ones stars James Freedson-Jackson and Alex Pettyfer.
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