Men go into the wilderness to either face or submit to their inner demons. It’s the kind of masculine interiority plotline that often results in more existential macho posturing than mesmerizing character study. Lauren Wolkstein and Christopher Radcliffe are clearly reaching more for that latter with the feature adaptation of their 2011 short The Strange Ones, though they’re disciplined stylistic chops don’t entirely transcend the trappings of brooding boyhood. Laying out a compelling layer of mystery and moral uncertainty, The Strange Ones proves more enticing for the routes it teases the audience with than those it stumbles its way down.
We start on two boys, the older, ambiguously threatening Nick (Alex Pettyfer) and the younger, disarmingly blunt Jeremiah (James Freedson-Jackson), ostensibly brothers out on a camping trip, running from some mysterious trauma. The specific terms of their relationship remain unspoken, but it becomes clear they aren’t brothers when Nick starts talking about *his* dad and the hunting lessons he passed down to him. They may be inhabiting a surrogate father-son dynamic, but the way Jeremiah talks back to Nick slowly changes our perception of precisely who is being most coerced into this relationship.
“She wants to do you. You should go for it” Jeremiah passive-aggressively darts at Nick about a motel employee, just before poisoning Nick’s reputation by telling her he could be a rapist for all she knows. Jeremiah’s clearly in control, and after a 2nd act twist separates him from his wannabe guardian, we begin to grow anxious about how vigorously and manipulatively he can exert that control. As Jeremiah bounds from woodland residence to farmer’s commune back to his hometown, we start to learn more and more about the violent night he’s trying to escape, but the specifics of his feelings about them remain an unsettling mystery.
For whatever reason this feels more like Radcliffe’s film that Wolkstein’s, the latter having gone on to develop her own independent voice, including a segment in narrative dream-experiment Collective: Unconscious (BAMcinemaFest 2016). This feels like a reunion for both to burrow deeper into the psychological crevices teased in their short. The woodland hysteria Jeremiah’s oblique adventures are at times reminiscent of Sean Durkin’s loss & reclamation of self thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene, suggesting a kind of necessary, if impossible to define, emotional transformation to give Jeremiah the confidence he needs to accept his brutal past. For all the handsomely distilled tension of Todd Banhazi’s cinematography, and the swirling sense of disorientation conjured by woodwind score, The Strange Ones still feels a bit too inchoate to settle with, slipping further away the deeper it pulls us in.