Strange Ones review James Freedson-JacksonYear: 2017
Director(s): Christopher Radcliff, Lauren Wolkstein
Writer(s): Christopher Radcliff, Lauren Wolkstein
Region of Origin: US

Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Rating: R
Color, 81 mins

Synopsis: Two travelers as they make their way across a remote American landscape. On the surface all seems normal, but what appears to be a simple vacation soon gives way to a dark and complex web of secrets. (Source)

The Strange Ones, from directors Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein is a slow-burn chiller that forces us to get on its level. It stops us cold in our tracks, patiently revealing itself through a hypnotic pace, non-linear narrative and minimal dialogue. Despite a cryptic nature that renders much of its mysteries impenetrable (at least initially), Radcliff and Wolkstein’s film is still a breath of fresh air, playing out like a psychological riddle with surprising emotional heft. While most films may be content to spoon-feed their audiences, this film makes us work, resulting in a satisfying experience that seeps with dread and haunting imagery. The film’s also got a powerhouse performance from lead James Freedson-Jackson, who pulls us into its twisted headspace in a way that keeps us gripped. The experience definitely won’t be for everyone, but those into its stylish-off kilter vibe will admire its change of pace.

Things begin with a house on fire and ominous glances. Are these visions, or memories? From here, we meet Nick (Alex Pettyfer), and a young boy named Sam (James Freedson-Jackson). Both are trying to move past an unsaid traumatic event. The relationship between the pair seems strained, and we aren’t quite sure what these two mean to each other – they obviously care for each other in some form or another. Nick and Sam’s destination is a cabin in the woods, but their journey there will run into a few roadblocks, and we aren’t sure what awaits them when they get there. For the uninitiated, the less I say about plot, the better, but as the missing pieces of this puzzle come together, a poignant, terrible picture begins to form.

More than anything, the film is about context, forcing us to piece things together only to have our preconceptions subverted. It’s an approach that works for the story’s broader social themes, pushing boundaries and taboo in a way that really forces us to think. Needless to say, Radcliff and Wolkstein dole out their mystery through a mastery of craft and technical precision. As the film is all about perception, Radcliff and Wolkstein’s languid approach feels earned. “The things inside your head, they’re only as real as you want them to be”, says Nick at one point. So too does the viewer begin to question just exactly what we’re seeing. As it turns out, nothing is what it seems, and the film’s eerie atmosphere begins to compound as things progress. It all leads to a climax that doesn’t escalate in terms of rhythm or physicality, but instead locks everything together in a way that confronts the splintering trauma inside of Sam’s head.

Strange Ones reviewThough the film can feel like a hazy nightmare with forbidding implications, the performances give us a human foothold. James Freedson-Jackson’s Sam is completely naturalistic throughout, evoking a constant pain in his eyes, fleeting moments of hope and a devastation that overtakes everything. Freedson-Jackson’s measured speech and blank stares relate that he’s drowning in some deep waters, and it’s through him that all of the story’s emotion matters. Opposite, Alex Pettyfer gives Nick an aura that’s hard to classify. Sometimes he’s physically opposing and seething with sexual nuance, others times he’s a shell – and then he can be calm and sympathetic when he wants to. Pettyfer, without saying much encapsulates the complexity of what’s on screen, and together, he and Freedson-Jackson make a gripping pair.

Like any film this impressionistic, the after-effects stick with us. In fitting fashion, the story feels as if it’s just beginning when the film ends, because that’s when it starts to take hold within us. Radcliff and Wolkstein have created something that’s definitely too obtuse to connect with a large audience, but is a focused, restrained work of existential tension. The pain, isolation and angst feel palpable, and keep us guessing until the bitter end.

SG