Director: Thomas M. Wright
Featuring: Joel Edgerton, Sean Harris, Jada Alberts, Steve Mouzakis
Rated R for language and disturbing content
“Close your eyes. Place your attention on your breath.
Breathe in. And out.
Just put your attention on the breath coming into your body as you inhale. It’s clear. Nothing.
And as you breathe out the air that comes out of you is black. And that black is any anxiety, stress, any worries that you carry. And as you breathe out, feel it leave your body. Breathe in clear air and breathe out the black. Breathe in clear air. Breathe out the black.“
The Stranger, Australian director Thomas M. Wright’s grim depiction of an extensive undercover operation to bring a child murderer to justice, released this week to Netflix. It is in many ways a godawful film: stifling, sinister, cramped, and, as the epigraph suggests, suffocating. For all that, it is deeply compelling, even, somehow, oddly beautiful.
The film, controversially, is based on the real-life kidnapping and murder of 13-year-old Daniel Morcombe in Australia. Morcombe’s parents refused to assist in the production process and the film, changing names, details of the crime, location, and other factors, respectfully avoids most direct connection. But the story remains largely the same. Indeed, the Morcombe investigation itself seems the stuff of movies. The most extensive investigation in Queensland’s history, the case eventuated in a man named “Joe” meeting Brett Peter Cowan on a plane one day. Following the seemingly random encounter, the two hit it off and over the next several weeks continued to meet up. It seemed a normal enough start to a normal enough friendship. Only, “Joe” was an undercover police officer trying to induce a confession from Cowan. It eventually worked, and eight terrible years after Morcombe’s disappearance, Cowan was charged and found guilty in the boy’s murder.
Taking Kate Kyriacou’s The Sting: the Undercover Operation that Caught Daniel Morcombe’s Killer as its source material, The Stranger focuses not so much on the crime itself as on the psychology of the killer and those hunting him. The storyline is split into two trajectories that come together in the final act. The vast bulk of the film’s attention follows undercover police detective Mark (Edgerton) as he befriends drifter Henry Teague (Harris), inviting him into a criminal organization. Mark convinces Henry that advancement rests entirely on Henry being reliable, which includes always telling the truth. In this way, they hope to lure Henry into confessing to the abduction and murder of a young boy eight years earlier. The secondary storyline involves the procedural investigation.
The Stranger is no ordinary crime thriller. It moves along at a languid pace. It’s far too slow for comfort. As details of the crime slowly emerge—and, therefore, as our recognition of the monstrousness of Henry grows—we are increasing anxious for resolution—meaning: we want Henry brought to justice. The film does not care about what we want.
A running motif throughout is the inability to breathe. Henry is constantly sucking on an asthma inhaler. Mark confesses to dreams in which he is suffocating. The epigraph, we eventually gather, is drawn from counseling help Mark has received at work. He will go on to teach the breathing technique to his own young son.
There is much going on with this imagery. For Henry, the suffocating discomfort he is feeling is appropriate. He is a terribly evil human being. He has gotten away with the harming of children on several occasions. He remarks early on that the asphyxiating sensations he suffers have grown more frequent. Given his crimes, this is as it should be—especially when we learn that he murdered his victim by strangling him. His affliction is its own kind of justice.
But by taking note of Mark’s own breathing difficulties, The Stranger seems to suggest that it is not only those who do great evil that suffer for doing it, but those as well who stand against the evil. Stopping monsters sometimes exacts a terrible price. This is not justice, but it appears to be a simple consequence. The film hints that there could be two reasons for this.
The first is proximity. Evil is like an infection. It spreads and contaminates everything it touches. There are some things that once seen cannot be unseen, once heard unheard, or once known forgotten. To know evil, to merely be aware of certain kinds of horrors that some human beings do to other human beings is sufficient to make us feel unclean, morally exhausted, and traumatized. The deeper Mark goes into understanding the evils that Henry has done to children, the more fragile he realizes is his own ability to care for his own son.
Secondly, in fighting evil we must sometimes do things that we ought rather never have to do. I don’t go in much for the dirty hands language that thinkers sometimes employ to justify doing certain things they call lesser evils. Rather, in situations in which moral duties conflict, we should prefer to say that the Christian’s gaze is always on doing the greatest good that can be done given the actually available options. I don’t mean this in a purely utilitarian sense of maximizing goodness, but of performing those duties that bring the present crisis closer to shalom, to the way things ought to be. Even the pursuit of good outcomes has limits. One of them, I would insist, is that we must never intentionally do morally evil things. But this doesn’t mean that what we do is always easy.
Mark’s ability to get Henry to confess rests on Mark being able to build a friendship with him. He has to act like a friend to get Henry to do what friends do: trust each other. There’s no other word for this except intimacy. Mark is intentionally building intimacy with a known monster in order to bring him to justice. There is a certain overlap here with much of intelligence work and particular kinds of warfighting, including snipers and remote piloted aircraft flight crews. In various ways each will often build certain kinds of intimacy with those they are pursuing. RPA crews might build a pattern of life of would-be prey to determine, first, whether the person they are following is their correct target and, two, to identify opportunities to kill that target without collateral damage. However mission effective this is, however confident you are that the person in your crosshairs deserves death, and however much killing him leads to taking an important asset off the battlefield, to kill someone with whom you have grown familiar can take a toll.
We tend to think of such suffering as a terrible thing, and, to be sure, it can have terrible consequences indeed – as the psychological stress, substance abuse, fractured relationships, and suicide rate among those suffering such traumas attests. But there is another kind of suffering which while we ought not to seek it out we ought also not try too hard to avoid. Righteous suffering is a species of sorrow born out of love and the magnanimous, self-donating actions that love breeds. Our just warriors, medical professionals, first responders – including EMTs, paramedics, fighters, and police – take on personal pain to relieve or prevent the pain of others, bearing it in their place. In The Stranger, this is driven home in multiple ways. One way is with a simple but repeated image of Mark cleaning up other people’s broken glasses. In one sense, his entire investigation is about repairing—making better—even a little bit of the world. It’s worth noting a scene at the film’s end in which Mark and his son are washing dishes together after Henry has been safely put away. One of the film’s last shots is Mark rinsing off an intact glass and putting it safely away in the dish drainer.
This is not to make saints of those who defend our nation or protect our neighborhoods. All of them, every one, is a human being comprised of an admixture of good and evil. But it is to acknowledge the gratitude we owe them, and the moral courage they exemplify at their best. And it is to acknowledge that nobody comes out the business of fighting evil entirely unscathed. In the case of warfare, neither those who need to be killed, nor those who do the necessary killing. In the case of criminal investigations, neither the monsters nor those who bring truly evil people to justice.
In driving such reflections home, The Stranger isn’t’ entirely bleak. In the film’s final act, there are two moments that bring us as near a catharsis as we be permitted. The first is the moment when, finally, a forensic investigator, kneeling shoulder to shoulder with a host of other investigators in the mud of the forest, searching for anything that will definitively link Henry to the murdered boy, finds something. We are never told what it is (in the real life story investigators apparently found bone fragments after a painstaking search over several forested acres). The moment is haunting. Out of the rot and detritus there is something that might just lead to even a modicum of justice.
The second is at the very end. Mark’s son leaves his bed at night and looks through the living room window at his father sitting alone on the porch. In a voiceover, Mark is retelling a dream, a nightmare really. In it he says he can barely breathe. At the same moment, Mark’s son begins to take in his own deep breaths before letting them out in long, cleansing exhalations. His eyes are focused on his father as if he’s willing his dad to breathe with him.
Without saying anything about it all, the film reminds us that those who confront evil on our behalf will need us to help them heal. Professional counseling, medical interventions, and other formal kinds of therapy have their place. But it is community, not clinics, that provide any real hope. American society has not yet fully understood this responsibility nor taken up the burden. We have work to do.
Ultimately, The Stranger is, I think, best received as a reminder of everything that is owed to those who keep us safe – particularly those who stand between us and the wolves. It does not celebrate their work, for there is no fanfare here. But it is a somber ode to their quiet heroism.