Atmosphere can only carry a film so far.
With The Strange Ones, directors Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein attempt to create a profound enigma by simply obscuring the details. Their hazily sketched characters, the handsome adult Nick (Alex Pettyfer) and morose adolescent Sam (James Freedson-Jackson), hit the road after an opening sequence that finds the boy standing stock-still, silhouetted against a burning house at night. As they traverse the countryside, sleeping in the car and otherwise briefly occupying a cabin from Nick’s youth or an off-season motel room, the pair claim to be brothers on vacation whenever they encounter a need to explain themselves. But something’s clearly not right; there’s an unsettling attraction between the man and boy that the filmmakers purposely keep as ambiguous as the reason why the two are on the lam in the first place.
There’s artistry in the vivid, dreamlike cinematography, particularly in beguiling shots of nature, and the ambient score heightens the ominous mood that the film maintains throughout. But a heavy-handed supernatural element—most pronounced when Sam admits to struggling with differentiating dreams from reality and Nick proceeds to inexplicably cause a mug to vanish from the café table in front of him—feels shoehorned-in. Unfortunately, the film proceeds not as the gradual unraveling of a compelling mystery so much as something akin to a cat batting around a ball of colorful yarn—there’s the sense that the filmmakers are toying with the audience. As the creepy implications of Sam and Nick’s relationship and sordid details of why they’re on the run begin to trickle out, the film devolves into contrived borderline-exploitation.
The Strange Ones’ plodding pacing strings along the viewer, and its weak script ends up squandering an impressive performance by Freedson-Jackson as Sam, who appears, in turns, both traumatized and sinister. His jealousy when Nick begins a light flirtation with bored motel worker Kelly (Emily Althaus) bubbles over into near-derangement as Sam maliciously confronts her, and his interactions with Nick brim with a heady mix of desperate devotion and inscrutable disdain. As Sam becomes separated from Nick, he stumbles onto the property of a boys’ group home helmed by the magnanimous Gary (Gene Jones), who takes the boy under his wing. The film loses its atmosphere of underlying menace here, even as the film’s cryptic plot finally begins to form a coherent picture. For a film so reluctant to show its cards early on, The Strange Ones’ big twist still somehow manages to feel completely telegraphed, its revelations never landing with the kind of weight the filmmakers clearly intended by initially cloaking everything in so much mystery.
Atmosphere can only carry a film so far, especially when it’s undermined by pointless obfuscation. The Strange Ones never digs far enough beneath the surface of things to achieve much meaning. The vague supernatural allusions and dreams-versus-reality contrivances don’t mix well here with weightier themes of thorny affections and domestic violence, and this moody, visually-compelling film doesn’t do enough psychological heavy-lifting to earn its indulgence in sensationalized taboo.