“Strangerland” marks Nicole Kidman’s first starring role in an independent Australian film since 1989’s “Dead Calm,” the movie that put her on the map. Over the many years since Philip Noyce’s claustrophobic thriller on the high seas, Kidman consistently has surprised us and taken chances in a variety of parts. She has dared to visit dark and disturbing places to explore the complicated psychologies of her characters.
This is certainly true, as well, in “Strangerland,” in which she plays a wife and mother devastated by the disappearance of her two children from a middle-of-nowhere desert town. If only her performance were in the service of a better film. Director Kim Farrant’s debut feature is beautifully shot and offers some powerful, well-acted moments from a strong cast, but it’s just relentlessly dreary.
Despite some striking, widescreen imagery from Irish cinematographer PJ Dillon—including shimmering sunsets, craggy canyons and a doozy of a dust storm—“Strangerland” is, more often than not, lifeless and languid. It’s a missing-kid mystery with some red herrings and misplaced mysticism, all of which leads to an ending that’s coy in its intentional ambiguity and ultimately unsatisfying.
There’s tension at the start, though, with the help of some effectively minimalist sound design: the thrum of a ceiling fan, the scratch of a pencil on a crossword puzzle, a fly buzzing overhead in the kitchen. Working from a script by Fiona Seres and Michael Kinirons, Farrant creates a vivid sense of loneliness and isolation. You actually might think you’ve walked into a zombie movie by mistake; its opening sequence features a pre-teen boy wandering by himself through the silent streets and desolate remnants of civilization in a small, dusty town.