“Did you walk last night?” Catherine Parker (Nicole Kidman) asks her son, Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton). He acknowledges he has spent a sleepless night wandering around their isolated Australian town and the surrounding desert. “You’ve got to stop doing that.” It’s a suggestion he shrugs off, with catastrophic consequences for the whole family.
When Strangerland begins, that family has recently relocated to Nathgari and no one is happy about it. Tommy and 15-year-old Lily (Maddison Brown) have no interest in making friends in this “shit hole town” and dad Matthew (Joseph Fiennes) is constantly angry, flying off the handle and slamming tables with his fist at the slightest provocation. Catherine tries to remain upbeat, maintain peace, and reconnect with Matthew, who’s currently sleeping in another room.
But Catherine is worn out by the struggle, much of it concerning Lily. The girl first appears as she greets the house painter, Burtie (Mayne Wyatt), in her underwear. Catherine refuses to admonish her, but Matthew can’t get over the fact that their move to the desert was precipitated by the girl’s affair with a married teacher. They fled Coonabara, humiliated by the publicity, and have now tasked her younger brother to be her keeper, warning him, “Don’t let her out of your sight.” Their problems redouble: the boy resists this impossible assignment and Lily continues to act out while he watches, cruising the skate park, then hooking up with some guy in a nearby shipping-container-turned-flophouse.
That night, Tommy climbs over the fence, followed by Lily and observed by Matthew. When Catherine wakes the next morning school to discover her children are missing, she’s frustrated by Matthew’s apparent lack of concern. Following her own brief, frantic search, she contacts the police. Detective Rae (Hugo Weaving) proves a stabilizing presence for Catherine, even as he predictably irritates Matthew.
As distressed as Catherine appears over her missing children, the search for them is only tangential to Strangerland‘s plot. While the camera repeatedly pans the endless and unforgiving outback terrain where the kids might be, the narrative sharpens its focus on their parents, especially Catherine as she unravels.
Beyond her emotional trajectory, however, Strangerland offers few clear-cut causes and effects. Rather, the film considers broader themes, including the consequences of sexual repression and social secrecy. The Parkers appear incapable of being truthful with each other about anything. Some of their efforts are understandable: the children hide things from their parents, Catherine covers for her children, and Matthew wants to keep his family’s business. But the details Catherine and Matthew hide from each other after the kids disappear don’t make much sense, serving only as unnecessary reminders of their fractured relationship.
That fracturing is also visible in their different responses to their missing children. While Matthew blames Lily, we soon see that Catherine admires and covets her daughter’s sensuality, even before she vanishes. Matthew blames Catherine for Lily’s defiance, complaining, “She’s almost as out of control as you were.” Her reply — a teasing, “Yes, but you married me,” as she tries to seduce him — is more than a little telling, and troubling, as both mother and daughter are equated within Matthew’s desire and revulsion.
The more Catherine uncovers about her daughter’s history, the more desperate she becomes to connect to her. She finds and reads Lily’s journal, dresses in her clothes, and puts on her lip-gloss, as if to appropriate the girl’s sexual power. Catherine’s motivations here are appropriately muddled. We can’t tell whether she’s trying to reaffirm her own desirability or reenacting her daughter’s behavior as a means to understanding her, or maybe both at once.
Increasingly isolated, stifled by Matthew’s and others’ disapproval and rejection, Catherine becomes increasingly erratic, much like Lily did. Matthew responds as we know he will, his fear of lost control transformed into anger and violence. But such efforts to oppress, to contain, sexuality and self-expression can’t possibly hold. Strangerland doesn’t make clear whether the inevitable rupture is liberating or destructive.