We're road tripping with these men – a cramped red Volvo, no suitcases. They're on the run. We don't know from what, but young Sam (Cop Car's James Freedson-Jackson) keeps dreaming of fire and blood. His scruffy elder, Nick (Magic Mike's Alex Pettyfer), tells him to forget about the tragedy. It's only real if his mind makes it so. Yet try as he may, Sam cannot stop revisiting whatever it was that set this journey in motion and keeps invading his nightmares. This is what it means to live with trauma. You can never outrun it, and may not necessarily be able to abide its companionship. But like it or not, pain becomes your kin.
That's the thematic core of Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein's The Strange Ones. A formally precise, eerie mystery that unfolds in methodical fashion, their film doles out information bit by bit, until we're acting as accomplices to the crimes its central characters committed. The relationship between Sam and Nick is hazily defined at first; the younger half seeming possessive of the man who watches him, despite the disciplinary slaps to the face he sometimes receives. Nick is a protector – Sam’s guardian and mentor regarding the cruelties of existence. But there's also an inappropriate sexual tension bubbling under the surface of every terse interaction the two share. Radcliff and Wolkstein aren't afraid to push what ostensibly seems like a brotherly bond into the realms of queer awakening and obsession. These elements are brewed into a rather potent witches brew that's utterly hypnotic once ingested.
The Strange Ones is a film that requires patience, as the shot selection and editing rhythms lull the viewer into the same state of transience that its characters are experiencing. The sun rises and sets, previous nights’ cold and precipitation casting dew over the horizon. Cinematographer Todd Banhazl slowly zooms in on the two as they shoot targets in the woods and jump fences in order to swim in motel pools. When they encounter Kelly (Emily Althaus), a generous clerk with an eye for Nick, the camera gets close to Sam's face as he eyes her suspiciously before warning that his companion’s "a liar". The punctiliousness of the picture’s assembly mirrors the two males' headspaces, as the focus becomes dim and murky at moments, as if to obscure the truth they're also hiding from. The Strange Ones is an immaculate example of lo-fi, no money attention to form and aesthetics; a remarkable feat in an era of indie filmmaking that often trades control for slapdash improvisation.
When coupled with the exquisite mix of woodwinds and drone synths that are arranged by music supervisor Rob Lowry, The Strange Ones becomes a somewhat overwhelming exercise in hanging dread and lingering memory. Though a second half transition where Sam is taken in by a kindly farmer (The Sacrament's Gene Jones) stretches narrative plausibility (why is his land tended to exclusively by children and young adults?), and the spiritual inquisitions often lend an out of place sense of the supernatural to an otherwise grounded affair, Radcliff and Wolkstein have constructed a rather impressive feature debut*. There are moments when the seams and their relative inexperience show but, for the most part, The Strange Ones is a wholly engrossing work of palpable anxiety, as no one seems to come of age or change. We all just wrestle with the guilt of what we’ve done, and hope that it hasn’t damned us forever or turned us into demons.
*Expanding upon their original short film idea for the movie.