Two young siblings vanish into the Australian outback and send their parents’ marriage into a torturous tailspin in “Strangerland,” a perilously overwrought melodrama that seeks to examine a domestic crisis in all its buried emotional, psychological and (especially) sexual dimensions. A fiercely committed performance by Nicole Kidman distinguishes this despairing debut feature from director Kim Farrant, who mines the harsh, unforgiving desert environs for all the suggestive ambiguity and menacing atmosphere she can muster. But while it fairly reeks of dust-choked misery, the drama turns increasingly wobbly and unpersuasive as it continues, stranding the viewer with a couple whose long-suppressed psychosexual demons feel more like the belabored phantoms of a screenwriter’s imagination. A strong cast led by Kidman will grant the film some commercial visibility, but this is studiously bleak arthouse fare destined for a limited public.
Scribes Fiona Seres and Michael Kinirons set their story in the fictional town of Nathgari, a remote desert outpost to which Matthew Parker (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Catherine (Kidman), have recently moved with their 15-year-old daughter, Lily (Maddison Brown), and their younger son, Tom (Nicholas Hamilton). It takes just a few scenes of strained interaction to establish that the family is still recovering from a past trauma no one wants to talk about, though it clearly has something to do with the beautiful, nubile Lily, who takes an impudent delight in her burgeoning sexuality in ways that irritate and disturb her tightly wound father. A loud family argument one evening is followed by an eerie calm the next morning: Lily and Tom have disappeared during the night, and now they’re nowhere to be found.
Their panic quickly escalating, Catherine and Matthew are out looking for their offspring just as a massive, partially CG-rendered dust storm sweeps into town — less cataclysmic in its destruction than the one in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” perhaps, but still an effective (if obvious) metaphor for the blinding confusion that will engulf the Parkers in their children’s absence. It doesn’t take long for their big family secret to be dredged up by local detective Rae (Hugo Weaving), who fears that Lily and Tom will not last more than a couple of days without water in such extreme heat. Making matters even more convoluted, Rae is romantically involved with the Parkers’ neighbor Coreen (Lisa Flanagan), an Aboriginal woman whose handsome, mentally challenged younger brother, Burtie (Meyne Wyatt), may have been one of Lily’s (apparently many) sexual partners.
All this murkily plotted coincidence is meant to suggest the difficulty of burying shameful truths or quashing unfounded rumors in a town as small as this one. But the narrative machinery proves no more convincing than the underlying subtext, which is the strange, irrational power of female sexuality and the male need to repress and control it. “She didn’t get it from me,” Matthew snarls at Catherine, implying that his former-wild-child wife is responsible for their daughter’s rapacious appetites. And the movie more or less proves him right. While Matthew becomes a rather futile father protector, taking out his aggression on those men he thinks may have preyed upon his daughter, the increasingly itchy, sweaty Catherine enters a sort of erotic fugue state, desperately flinging herself at one confused suitor after another — including her husband himself, their romantic life having long since become as parched and empty as the outback itself.
Making her first narrative feature after several documentaries and short films, Farrant taps into a long lineage of Australian classics (“Walkabout” and “Wake in Fright” not least among them) in which the stark, unyielding landscape lends the drama a mythic dimension and holds up a sort of mirror to the characters’ madness. To that end, she has a gifted collaborator in cinematographer P.J. Dillon, whose gorgeous overhead shots of the vast, mountainous terrain (the film lensed in Sydney as well as the more remote towns of Canowindra and Broken Hill) add stunning visual punctuation to the story, accompanied by the ominous thrum of Keefus Ciancia’s score. Farrant is clearly after something raw and elemental here: a family tragedy in which the characters are undone from within and without, their fears and missteps amplified by ancient, unknowable forces stirring beneath their feet. But too much of “Strangerland” simply feels dodgy and overdetermined, veering between art-film pretensions and melodramatic gestures, and governed by ambitions that outstrip the filmmakers’ abilities.
If it’s hard to believe much of what’s going on here, it’s harder not to believe Kidman, making a ferocious return to roots with her first lead role in an Australian independent production since Phillip Noyce’s 1989 thriller “Dead Calm.” Even when faced with a problematic role, she remains a master of onscreen anguish, shedding layer after layer in pursuit of the most bruising and sometimes off-putting emotional truths. The dynamism of her performance easily eclipses the work of Fiennes, who turns Matthew into a sort of study in emasculated inertia. His clear discomfort with sexuality — his daughter’s, his wife’s, his own — finds an obvious contrast in Rae, who enjoys a healthy intimacy with Coreen and, as embodied by the handsomely brooding Weaving, is the most likable onscreen figure by a not-insignificant margin.
Due in part to her limited screen time, Brown’s Lily remains more of a coquettish conceit than a fully fleshed-out character, an avatar of unbridled lust whom no amount of hallucinatory imagery and poetic voiceover can hope to illuminate. Perhaps unwittingly, she comes to arouse not just your sympathy but your envy. “Why did she run away?” is at least one of the mysteries looming over “Strangerland,” and in subjecting us to the company of her parents and their marital hysterics — crowned, at the end, by the barest flicker of redemption — this grim, unsatisfying movie supplies almost too obvious an answer.