16 June 2008

The Strangers

Written & Directed by: Bryan Bertino
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: A-

For a film about strangers, much of Bryan Bertino’s debut feature is familiar. The Strangers, a home invasion thriller, bears a conspicuous resemblance to a spate of recent scary movies: it appropriates a tragic-ironic narrative turn from this year’s Inside (and unfortunately handles it far less gracefully); borrows quite a bit more from last year’s Them; and, more broadly, plays out as a straight-faced Funny Games (that is, without Michael Haneke literally winking at you all the time). And those are just the movies it evokes from the last twelve months.

Even though it doesn’t offer much new material, The Strangers still succeeds, largely because it makes the most of what’s been done before; the writer-director knows which of the genre’s tropes to use to his advantage and which to excise entirely (such as the standard series of false endings). To boot, Bertino knows that a horror movie is only as strong as its underlying themes and, ultimately, his violent fable serves not to divert audiences with air-conditioning and bloodletting but to challenge popular conceptions about big election-year (Republican) issues like family values and the sanctity of marriage.

The Strangers starts at the end and circles back, but not before Bertino gives us a taste of the carnage to come: a heart-shaped hole in a windshield, a shotgun resting on a kitchen counter, a blood-spattered wall and, eeriest of all, a perpetually spinning record, the player’s needle stuck in the vinyl’s inner groove. (Try to imagine the mayhem that must have unfolded as to prevent a man from properly caring for his phonograph.)

Bertino steps back from this post-struggle tableau to introduce our heroes: an unhappy couple, Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, whose misery is established through a wordless lack of eye contact, in sharp contrast to the motormouthed bickering of Vacancy’s doomed divorcees-to-be. The product of a marriage proposal rejected, The Strangers’s melancholy lovers establish a thoroughly morose mood, ripe for intrusion.

That invasion comes in the form of a coitus-interrupting knock on the door. Stop that babymaking, you’re not even engaged! From then on, the film is an uninterrupted succession of frights, tapping into the standard post-9/11 anxieties: not only the fear of being attacked on one’s own soil, so to speak, but the fear of not knowing what’s coming: the home invaders delay their attack, spending the bulk of their time scaring the young couple—our diegetic stand-ins—with spooky sounds and sinister costuming.

While Them’s invaders used a similar technique, which allowed the directors to offer a metacommentary on horror moviemaking (natch, they’re French), here our villains’ scare-first methodology serves merely as an excuse for the director to practice the finer points of suspense construction. Bertino, master craftsman, expertly builds tension, particularly in an almost already-iconic shot in which a menacing figure slides in and out of the frame’s fringes. While keeping us captivated in silence, Bertino plays on our expectations. A confidently extended build-up to the drawing of window drapes actually pays off with something frightening on the other side of the pane, rather than, say, something scary actually behind the drape-draw-er. Later, when a hand reaches into the frame to touch Speedman’s turned back, it turns out to belong to one of the killers—not, say, to his girlfriend. (We seem to be approaching a point where the cliché is so infrequently employed that it is no longer cliché—witness Atom Egoyan’s recent courage to answer “who done it?” with “the butler!”)

But Bertino’s boldest move is to ignore, ostensibly, all matters of motive. Early on, when Tyler asks why this is happening, Speedman sensibly brushes her question aside. “We don’t need a reason if they come through that door,” he says. Later, when the invaders have our heroes tied to chairs, they confess, with characteristically sociopathic laconicism, why they attacked the couple: “because your were home.” But this isn’t because Bertino is lazy or because he’s after a heightened sense of realism (“that’s what psychopaths are really like,” as the IMDb message board apologists might say); rather, it’s because Bertino’s ascribed motives are more metaphysical.

The three invaders are credited as “The Man in the Mask,” “The Pin-Up Girl,” and “Dollface”. The man wears a jacket and tie; pin-up girl, the cartoonishly sultry facemask of a sexualized adult woman; dollface, the chubby-cheeked, wide-eyed guise of a child. In short, the three are made up as a perverse portrayal of the American family, an ersatz nuclear unit with each outfitted in a warped concept of the domestic uniform. (Papa Murderer, Mama Murderer and Baby Murderer.) The notion, and the threat, of “family,” once personified, ultimately kills our notlyweds just as, in abstract form, it effectively killed their relationship.

Watch the trailer:

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