The stranger (2022)

The gripping true story behind the most lengthy undercover police operation in Australia to nab a killer

6/23/20234 min read

Australia, 116 minutes, 2022

Director : Thomas M. Wright

Cast : Joel Edgerton, Sean Harris, Jada Alberts, Steve Mouzakis

Awards : Un Certain regard, Cannes Film Festival, 2022; Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay by Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCAA), 2022.

Based on a true story captured in a book –The sting: The Undercover Operation That Caught Daniel Morcombe’s Killer- written by Kate Kyriacou, this film traces the undercover police operation which it ran in 2010 for an abduction which took place in 2002 in Australia. A kid was abducted while standing under a bridge and that is all various witnesses had recounted in police investigation. Police suspect Henry Teague (Sean Harris) but doesn’t have any conclusive proof. The case remained unsolved, then, since the body is not found, if assumed that abduction later resulted in murder.

Detective senior constable, Kate Rylett (Jada Alberts), the lead investigator, now, in this case after going through case files discovers that Henry Teague’s alibi was not fool proof when investigated in 2002. Moreover she finds out that he was earlier convicted and served prison term under a different name, Peter Morley. This convinces her of his involvement in the crime.

To take the matter further, police forms a parallel undercover team to reach Henry. The team lures Henry by making Paul Emery (Steve Mouzakis), an undercover police officer, strike a friendship with him on a bus. Paul Emery gains his trust and asks Henry if he is open to a ‘job’. Henry replies in positive saying that he is but he ‘doesn’t do violence’. This opens a door for entry and Mark Frame (Joel Edgerton), another police undercover operator, steps in as trusted criminal inside a crime syndicate. The events are lined up in such a way that creates an impression that Henry is gaining acceptance inside the organisation and the group is about to do something big. For Henry to be trusted by the organisation, group’s boss John (Alan Dukes), again another police officer, tells Henry that he must come clean of his misdemeanours in the past so that if there are any loose ends, they will make them disappear. Slowly, they start getting into Henry’s head and life. Mark is shown consistently as a man who trusts Henry and has big boss’s trust.

Henry trusts Mark and in one of the slyly recorded discussions, Henry is made to reveal the details of the abduction and murder of the kid. The team says that they must make all proofs disappear and hence Henry must take them to crime scene which he agrees to do. So by now they have recorded confession of Henry although he doesn’t know it, know the crime scene but the challenge is that there is no proof. And that is a big challenge since police chief says that the case will fall apart in court if we do not have proof. This starts a massive hunt by police investigators, forensic experts, deep river divers to get an iota of proof to nail the criminal. Eventually one of workers uncovers some proof which audience is not shown though.

This film could have been easily made as a Hollywoodian thriller and police drama but Thomas M Wright’s superb writing and direction took it from that natural crime drama thriller to a surreal, slow burn treated film staying away from sensation, keeping in line with the nature of grim crime. The mood is set right from start with image of policemen hunting for any evidence in the vast areas of forest. The film progresses in non-linear form, starting with present day then going back to show investigation process and comes back to zero in on Henry Teague at the crime scene.

Though Joel Edgerton and Sean Harris delivers stellar performances along with Jada Alberts in main roles, the crown is taken by Thomas Wright for his skilful handling of this non fictional book. The victim and the family of victim are never shown on screen and entire focus is on police operation and criminal. Deservedly, it was premiered in ‘Un Certain Regard’ category of Cannes Film festival, 2022 and did win three main awards by FCAA (Film Critics Circle of Australia) for Best film, Best Screenplay and Best Director.

About the director, Thomas M. Wright

Essentially a theatre person, Thomas M Wright is a versatile artist. He is an actor, writer, director, production designer (Plays) and creator of theatre company ‘Black Lung’, which was regarded as one of the most influential theatre companies of the decade in Australia.

Born in June of 1983 in Melbourne, after finishing high school, applied to study acting at the Victorian College of Arts. Interestingly though, he opted out of VCA after one and half years because he didn’t agree with their procedures of teaching acting. He then created an independent theatre company ‘Black Lung’ along with a close friend Thomas Henning. Later it also added few of fellow enthusiastic theatre lovers.

He got a break to act in series ‘Top of the lake’ by Jane Campion where he was noticed and won the Best supporting actor award at US Critics’ Choice Awards. As an actor he played pivotal roles in films ‘The Bridge’, ‘Everest’, and ‘Balibo’ among others. He received Special jury Prize at Venice Film festival, 2018 for his role in Warwick Thornton’s ‘Sweet country’.

‘The stranger’ is Thomas’s second feature film as a director. His first feature film was ‘Acute Misfortune’ also based on a book- Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen by Erik Jensen.