Nicole Kidman is the best reason to see Strangerlandan atmospheric and weirdly hypnotic but disjointed feature film debut from director Kim Farrant and screenwriters Fiona Seres and Michael Kinirons. The Australian production was in competition at the Sundance Film Festival, where it debuted in January and now is being released here in the U.S. on a platform basis and VOD. As I say in my video review above, Kidman is in fine form with one of her juiciest and most intriguing parts in awhile. It is no surprise as this star is one of Hollywood’s risk takers, always interesting to watch and always challenging herself and audiences.

pete hammond review badgeWith Strangerland, she returns to her native country to take on a unique and weird family story playing Catherine, a woman in a rocky marriage to Matthew (Joseph Fiennes) who moves their two children to a remote part of the Australian desert. The film sets off as a mystery when daughter Lily (Maddison Brown) — a 15-year-old Lolita — and  younger brother Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton) suddenly disappear into the vast Outback one night. An investigation is launched, led by local cop Hugo Weaving, but it isn’t really the focus or main interest of this film. Strangerland concentrates more on the toll taken on the parents and their relationship, which is crumbling as the local townspeople start judging them after the kids go AWOL. A dust storm complicates matters (there is fine cinematography by PJ Dillon), and as the mystery of their disappearance unravels, so do Kidman and Fiennes. Sexual repression becomes a key theme as the very loose Lily casts the town’s eye not only on her and those young men she came in contact with but also on her parents, whose own pasts come more clearly into view as the dust settles.

The Outback itself is a key character in the film, giving it a real sense of place and foreboding. As a study of people on an emotional cliff caught up in a new life in a strange environment, Farrant has lots to work with and proves to be a promising filmmaker with strong technical skills, but here she doesn’t seem to hit the right tone after a very promising beginning. Does it want to be a suspense thriller? A psychological drama? A troubled-marriage story? The elements don’t quite mesh, but it is no fault of the cast led by Kidman, who turns in a raw, revealing and emotionally naked performance. Fiennes is good but mostly one note compared to the shadings Kidman gets to give her character. Weaving is always fine, even in a bit of a role that is all over the place. Brown, a model-turned-actress, is just right in expressing the kind of very young sexually adventurous attitude that sets Lily apart in this hellhole of a town in the steamy-hot Australian summer. Ultimately, the film is not wholly satisfying as it rolls slowly along but still watchable. And it’s got Kidman.

Strangerland was Alchemy’s first major pickup after rechristening itself from Millennium Entertainment, and the distributor opens the film stateside Friday stateside. Do you plan to see it? Let us know what you think.