Review: 'The Strange Ones' Starring Alex Pettyfer And James Freedson-Jackson

When making the leap from short films to feature-length projects, it makes some sense to expand on familiar material. Writers/directors Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein have chosen this path with their hypnotic and atmospheric The Strange Ones, a psychological thriller without a lot of thrills and more mystery than it knows what to do with. The danger in expanding one's own work is twofold: the story isn't robust enough to support the extra attention, and there's the danger of seeing the material as more precious than it actually is.

The Strange Ones falls victim to both of these things, despite the directors' skill in setting the right mood for a couple of surprisingly powerful lead performances. The "strange ones" in question are ragged, dangerous-looking Nick (Alex Pettyfer) and his younger companion Sam (James Freedson-Jackson, from the little-seen Cop Car). The first half of the film, in which one puzzling question after another is introduced, finds them on an impromptu road trip. With a house burning in their rear view mirror, it's clear they're running away from something. Also obvious is that they aren't siblings, despite claims to the contrary. There is something not-quite-right between them, something ugly. Or perhaps something illicit.

We've grown so good at spotting sexual impropriety in movies now that a dubious older man running away with a moody, frightened child immediately gets our antennae up. "Just kill me...I don't even care where you bury my body" Sam challenges Nick. Is this just the typical good-natured ribbing between siblings stuck in the car together for too log? Or the desperate plea of an unwilling captive? The way Nick keeps them well-hidden and off the main roads suggests the latter. But Sam, who lies to others that his name is Jeremiah, is no peach, either.  He's got a venomous, ugly side that comes out, not necessarily to Nick, but to others who may seek Nick's attention.

Clocking in at just 82 minutes, The Strange Ones moves at a pace best described as glacial, and it feels stretched to the brink. Given the feeling of doom and dread that hangs over every scene and every interaction, it becomes a really tough slog to endure even for that long.  But the off-putting dynamic between  Sam and Nick remains the film's most intriguing quality, which is why everything veers off course when the story dovetails away from that in a significant way. The latter half shifts its focus, becomes more fractured and abstract as a means to better understand Sam's broken psyche, which throws everything seen from his perspective into doubt. But it's really not that much of a puzzle to be sorted out, despite the directors' hopes that it is, and any desire for answers we might have had quickly wears thin.

Cinematographer Todd Benhazi's creates a cinematic climate that is both sensual and menacing, which is also an apt description of Pettyfer's performance. He's an actor I had long since written off but he comes back swinging here, only matched by Freedson-Jackson who shifts from childlike innocence to malice with ease. It's too much to say they deserve better than a movie like The Strange Ones. It certainly is well-made and shows Radcliff and Wolkstein to be directors on the come up, but maybe this is an example of better things coming in smaller packages.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5