Film Review: The Stranger

This dark, low-key horror tale is unlikely to strike a chord with either fans of the 'Twilight' brand of sparkle vampires or old-school devotees of sensual, all-powerful bloodsuckers, but for adventurous genre buffs it’s a welcome change of pace.
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A stranger (Cristobal Tapia Montt)—he does have a name, Martin, but no one uses it—drifts into a small Canadian town whose pretty scenery and placid streets belie a film noir festival's worth of secrets and lies, which erupt after Peter (Nicolás Durán), the quiet teenage son of unmarried nurse Monica (Alessandra Guerzoni), spots a trio of local thugs mercilessly attacking the newcomer. What should be a straightforward situation quickly proves to be anything but: The ringleader is Caleb (Ariel Levy)–whose pale eyes and white-blond hair fairly scream psycho–the son of police lieutenant De Luca (Luis Gnecco). And as bad luck would have it, De Luca's boss is out of town, making him top rabid dog for the foreseeable future.

Peter's instinct is to help the stranger, which, predictably enough, enrages Caleb and sets off a series of highly unfortunate events. "Unfortunate" being, of course, a major understatement, because not only do they pit Peter and his mother against De Luca and his lackeys, who include virtually the entire police force–the lone holdout is Officer Harris (Aaron Burns), whose fundamental decency is no match for De Luca's rabid determination to protect Caleb from the consequences of his own increasingly unhinged actions–but also bring to light secrets from which Monica has spent her life trying to protect her son.

It's not really a spoiler to turn over the vampire card, because it's played relatively early enough in the film itself. In fact, overall the story is fairly predictable, which isn't a criticism: Uruguayan writer-director Guillermo Amoedo isn't looking to shake up the rules of what is, at heart, a fairly basic horror narrative. Where he veers from the contemporary norm is in tone: The Stranger is played absolutely straight, without in-jokes or sly allusions to earlier films or popular vampire literature. Without appearing to withhold information about when or where it's taking place, the film exists in a sort of grim nowhere in particular, some small town in some big country where people don't seem so much afraid of or hostile to the larger world as fundamentally indifferent to it: It's out there and they're in here. There's something vaguely “Twilight Zone”-ish about the whole thing, right down to the way most of the actors deliver their lines. Cynics might suggest that that last is less a deliberate effect than the result of a Spanish-speaking filmmaker directing his first English-language movie, and it's possible they'd be right–the visual language of film is universal, but judging nuances of performance in a language that isn't your first is difficult, even for fluent speakers–but the slightly off inflections just add the sense that there's something slightly off about everyone and everything.

The Stranger is far from a perfect film, but it's admirably eerie and remarkably restrained, which is not to say that it holds back when the going gets rough–there's less violence than in the average Hollywood genre movie, but what violence arises is very personal, so very squeamish viewers might prefer to give this one a pass.  

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