The Strangers begins with estrangement. Specifically, James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) sit unmoving in their Volvo, looking away from one another. They’re waiting at a stop light, at an intersection late at night, no traffic. His hands rest on the steering wheel, her cheeks are wet with tears. They don’t speak. The light changes, and the vehicle, now viewed from behind, proceeds.
Nearly as abstract as the statistic that precedes this scene — “According to the FBI, 1.4 million violent crimes are committed each year” — this first scene tells you precious little about the couple. Still, you surmise they are, or were, a couple, that they’ve come from a wedding reception (this much information is available in the opening crawl, and she’s wearing a pale lavender party gown, thin-strapped and gauzy). Arriving at their destination, James’ family’s vacation home, they make their way inside, still silent. He carries the suitcase, the sound of his keys clanky in the dead darkness before he hits the light switch; she pauses to finish her cigarette, then stubs it out carefully on the porch.
The lack of plot and excess of visual detail together are chilling. Even as James and Kristen begin briefly to talk — he explains he and a friend arranged the rose petals that afternoon, she appreciates the gesture, he calls that friend while she soaks, so sadly, in the tub, surrounded by unlit candles. “This thing didn’t work out the way I planned at all,” James tells Mike’s (Glenn Howerton) message box, “I know it’s a bitch to come all the way out here.” The back-plot is mostly in place: James needs a ride back, he’s leaving Kristen the car, and a ring box and champagne suggest there’s been a botched proposal, though it’s not entirely clear, even in the brief flashback to his asking, how it went wrong. No matter. They embrace gently, they’re distressed together, he murmurs, “You are my girl.” they begin to grope.
And then the movie shifts gears. A bang on the wide, wood front doors interrupts the almost-intimacy. Startled to see a waify blond (Gemma Ward) at the door, James is impatient and distracted. “Is Tamara home?”, she asks, as he wonders aloud about the broken porch light. Kristen standing just behind him, he stares uncomprehending at the young woman in deep shadow, apprehensive. Informed she has the wrong house — how many houses does she have to choose from? — she walks off into the darkness. Now they’re in trouble.
As the film heads into its own generic darkness, it’s well served by this concisely creepy set-up. As soon as James says he’ll go fetch his girl some more cigarettes because he needs to go driving, you know it’s a bad idea. Sure, she’ll be okay in the house alone, in the middle of nowhere at 4am. Sure, she’ll be fine, left carless to contemplate whatever just happened between them. James’ choice isn’t entirely reasonable, after this obviously ominous plot device of a young woman has appeared on their doorstep. But the movie isn’t much concerned with logic or motive. It limits its focus to what’s in front of you at any given moment. The dark corridor, the record player’s scratchy and mournful CW tunes, the repeated banging on the door: the essential elements are unsurprising, mostly restrained, sometimes bloody-hellish.
The home invasion proceeds in increments, the blond and her two compatriots, all wearing masks, all implacable, soon are making their way in and out of the house at will, noiseless, without need of key or glass-smashing tool. Bryan Bertino’s first feature is basic in the extreme, resisting motivations and eschewing tripods, The Strangers might best be described as a series of striking compositions, seemingly hectic but brutally precise. Kristen stands in the kitchen, drawing water in a glass, trying to calm herself in the house alone. Behind her and off to the far left, appearing to float in the blackness of the room behind her, stands a figure (Kip Weeks), blurred and immobile. He’s got a white bag on his head, eyeholes raggedy, suit and tie rumpled. Like a still photo, the shot waits for you to respond, doesn’t rush to its climax, which is, predictably, her turning around and his spot in the dark suddenly vacant.
This is pretty much the pattern going forward: each threat rises slowly, slams to a provisional conclusion or dissipates. James returns, he and Kristen are frightened and separated, the invaders hover at edges and sometimes erupt into frames, someone even crawls along rough ground, moaning in pain. Still, the film remains resolute. It doesn’t explain this bag-headed fellow, whose slow moving and wheezing only enhance his menace. You know a horrific crime scene will result: an opening sequence shows red splatter on a wall and a still-drippy knife, under a panicky, gasping 911 recording that sums up the plot: “There are people here.” Abusive and arty as it contemplates abuse and art, The Strangers delivers what you guess it will.