Written and directed by Dmitriy Tomashpolskiy, a synchronized swimming team disappeared during a performance, a patient of a water-therapy clinic disappeared while taking a bath, one inspector sets out to investigate how they’re connected. Starring: Anastasiya Yevtushenko, Darya Tregubova, Maria Bruni, Anna Sukhomlyn, Serhiy Kalantay and Mariya Motorna.
A lot of the time when a film has a few different genres listed, it feels like they’re just hedging their bets or even potentially trying to improve their chances of being seen but when Stranger lists mystery, sc-fi, thriller, fantasy it actually brings all that to the table. This is not your typical police investigation that starts out simple and then just throws a big twist at you towards its end, there are plenty of twists and turns in this complex tale. Opening on the soon to be missing synchronised swimmers is a strangely positive moment to begin a dark and mysterious tale, it’s that irony which actually enhances the mystery and ominous air before the story has even really begun.
The acting is another aspect that really brings out the tension, it’s frequently severe and stern, it doesn’t lean towards emotion, except for in the most rare of moments. Particularly its lead Yevtushenko, she has an unusual blend in her demeanour, you can see the emotion is there behind her eyes but she keeps the utmost professional manner at all times, it’s intriguing to watch. Once she arrives at the treatment centre, it throws in all sorts of characters, primarily those they call doctors, who you rarely see do anything other than speak in very blunt, repetitive sentences and stare menacingly. However, there’s one particular doctor who has a much stronger sinister air to her than all the rest, there’s something almost hateful to her, you may never know why but it’s fun to watch her and see how subtly aggressive she can become. That’s one of the great things about the cast as an ensemble, they’re hitting the same notes that the film tries to bring out; dark, sinister, mysterious, dangerous, they all work together to drive that atmosphere further which intensely supports the visual overall.
There’s a lot of very positive aspects to the direction and cinematography, firstly the use of colour gives it a real vivid energy despite that darkness, it doesn’t stick to the same palette, it plays with a range to really set scenes apart from one another. It’s also really interesting to see how they integrate the theme of water all throughout, it almost infects the way its shot and it has an incredible impact to some of the shots which are striking. Having that stark difference between its stunning visual and yet very refined and withheld performances gives it a peculiar charm that’s unusual and slightly odd but enchanting. It perhaps feels slightly reminiscent of A Cure for Wellness with a little of Creature from the Black Lagoon thrown in, which is one of the very interesting things about the film as it simultaneously feels modern and nostalgic, it’s almost as if it takes place in its own little space in time.
Having a mystery film which actually contains a satisfying and unpredictable story is sadly on the rare side, with so many opting for transparent or convoluted plots but Stranger strikes a wonderful balance of being complex but not overly complicated to follow, if you give it your attention. Bringing in the scientific aspects to its enigmatic story is a nice change of pace, also the fact that the women discussing physics aren’t scientists but their knowledge and interest in the subject isn’t questioned, like it would be in many other films. The film is extremely female centric which is lovely to see, there’s a couple of male characters involved but for the most part its all women and is certainly a factor in making it feel different and new. The way that the story is revealed is slow and it uses a lot of repetition to explore the events from different perspectives but where in some films it may feel pandering or unnecessary, here it’s used in a way that has something to add and boosts the suspense. It works very well to add a lot of tension, it’s a story that could go in any direction and one you’ll actually have sincere anticipation to see its resolution.
Another great aspect that it has to offer is the effects and costume work, it uses a mix of special and practical effects which really feed into that mix of modern and classic. The physical side using costumes and make-up almost feels like a homage to horror like the Universal Monsters, it’s extremely effective without being over the top and even almost has a playfulness to it. The way that it plays with genres makes it almost as if it’s a fantasy, mystery thriller that’s also a nod to horror without fully embracing it into its own story, as there are a lot of ways in which the film could dive into being horror. It certainly helps that its all accompanied by a score that’s not too far away from Desplat’s work on The Shape of Water, it embraces the aquatic theme and rounds out the experience well.
Stranger is creative, unusual, striking and complex, it’s a new experience while not stepping entirely out of the familiar realm, it takes influence from classic film and uses it to embrace a more timeless setting. The story is full of twists and turns, many of which you likely won’t see coming, which is a refreshing change from a lot of modern mysteries being painfully transparent. It puts together a few different themes and genres then really runs with them and blends them together impressively well. This is a perfect example of one of those films where you dive into it having absolutely no idea where it’s going and come out the other side satisfied yet knowing you’ll have to watch it a few times to truly unpack everything it has to offer. It asks for a touch more of your attention than your average film but it’s worth it.