R E V I E W   B Y   R I C H   C L I N E dir Ringan Ledwidge
scr Andrew Upton, James Watkins
with Scott Mechlowicz, Amelia Warner, Shaun Evans, Victoria Thaine, Yvonne Strzechowski, Tony Barry
release Aus 8.Mar.07,
UK 9.Mar.07
06/Australia Working Title 1h28

Beautiful stranger: Mechlowicz with Warner (above) and Evans (below).

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Gone Atmospheric and extremely creepy, this is one of those preposterous thrillers about a mysterious stranger who seems to be up to no good, although it takes what feels like an awful long time to know for sure.

When Alex (Evans) arrives in Sydney, he runs into a friendly American, Taylor (Mechlowicz), who takes him on a rowdy night out. The next day, Taylor offers Alex a ride to Byron, where Alex is meeting his girlfriend Sophie (Warner). And the three of them decide to stick together for a drive across the Outback. But Alex becomes increasingly aware of Taylor's manipulating ways, and suspicious of his intentions toward Sophie, who seems utterly oblivious.

The tension builds in a very slow burn, as director Ledwidge keeps the mood relaxed and unforced, playing cleverly with themes of guilt and doubt. He uses the settings well, from the urban jungle to the beachy paradise to the beautiful but foreboding Outback. And as the story progresses and the anxiety grows, punctuated by a few seriously heart-stopping moments.

There's a general believability to the characters and situations, but only up to the point where the script demands that they do some impossibly stupid things. The main problem is that the entire plot would unravel if Alex and Sophie actually had one normal conversation; the script keeps them implausibly inarticulate, and as a result we lose any connection or empathy we might have with them.

That said, the three lead actors are very good. Mechlowicz clearly bases his charming-but-dangerous stranger on Robert Mitchum's brilliant turn in Night of the Hunter, only briefly letting his shadows show as he quietly stirs the waters. Warner and Evans have less depth, but as scruffy, smart, loved-up backpackers, they hold our sympathies. At least until they start behaving inexplicably.

In the end, the script lets the film down with its obvious twists, its naggingly illogical narrative and a general pointlessness. The cast and director keep us involved by adding intriguing vibes at every turn, and by resisting the temptation to turn it into all-out horror. But without any meaning, the film feels ultimately rather slow, dull and as bone dry as the landscape itself.

cert 15 themes, violence, language 28.Jul.06

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2006 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall