Thomas M. Wright's The Stranger is a dark film, and I also mean this literally. There are moments when the characters are surrounded by darkness. Why? Bear with me. Both Mark (Joel Edgerton) and Henry (Sean Harris) are either not close or don't seem to spend much time with their family. Mark is separated from his wife, though his kid is allowed to visit him occasionally. We don't get too many scenes between them or ever find out why this couple got divorced in the first place. On the other hand, Henry's family is nowhere in sight. He recollects some incidents from his past, but we don't see any faces. The darkness then might be alluding to the fact that these two characters are cut off from familial warmth. There is no sunshine in their life, and so by extension, there is less light on the screen (at least most of the time).
Here's another interpretation. The Stranger is the kind of film that initially hides more than it reveals. The darkness then might be alluding to the fact that we, the audience, are kept in the dark about certain things. We don't see the whole picture - a line that could again be taken in a literal context (there are scenes where we merely see the faces of the characters as they are confined by, well, darkness).
The Stranger is a depressing movie, and I don't mean it as a compliment. Wright suppresses its energy and severs any trace of conviviality. When Henry puts on music and begins dancing, the movie prematurely ends this moment and moves to the next sedate scene. A hide-and-seek game concludes with the scolding of a child. That child is the sole bubble of delight, but he floats behind a dingy film that wants itself to be taken very seriously. The movie brushes aside moments of joy with a nod or a wink. In one scene, Henry puts his hand on Mark's leg, leading you to believe that something romantic or sexual is brimming underneath. Unfortunately, The Stranger acts like a stranger towards dramatically explosive feelings.
Yes, the movie deals with a serious subject, but Wright deliberately represses feelings. He moves his characters around like wooden pieces, and the result possesses the power to put you to sleep. So disconnected we are from this world, these characters, and their actions that a twist only slightly arouses our interest in the material. That twist, combined with moments where loud sounds appear in the background, acts like agents dispatched to resuscitate the audience. The Strangers can be too quiet. Hence, the sight of a car on fire, along with noisy music, registers as a declaration of an apocalypse. Wright has made a clever movie, but it's devoid of emotions.
Most of the information is dumped without creativity. How do we learn that Mark is an undercover agent? He says so by holding a device. We don't see him with this device again in the film. Meaning: This scene exists as a lazy exposition. Wright lacks the skill to pull off nightmare sequences. I am not a fan of oh-it-was-a-dream scenes, but the ones in The Stranger come close to being ridiculous. After all the dullness and darkness, I just wanted to go out, take a deep breath, and bask in the sunlight.
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