The arty but suspenseful drama The Strange Ones is a perfect demonstration of how the craft of storytelling is also the craft of withholding — of revealing as little as possible in carefully parceled-out amounts. Consider the fragmented opening: A man rasping a name that’s barely audible, a teenage boy with his back to the camera staring at a wall of flames. The young writer-director team of Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein move on to a mostly silent car ride, after which the boy (James Freedson-Jackson) — who is going by the name of Jeremiah — asks his apparent older brother, Nick (Alex Pettyfer), where they are. “Nowhere,” says Nick, which is pretty much where we are, too. Are they really brothers? Why do they seem unnerved by passing police? Why is their destination the middle of the woods? The boy gazes on his older companion with longing as well as fear. Are they lovers? Why else would they be — maybe — running?
In some films, withholding is more about sleight of hand than psychology, as in Jeremy Saulnier’s 2013 Blue Ruin — a conventional vigilante thriller tricked up (beautifully, it must be admitted) by an opening act steeped in uncertainty. The Strange Ones has more complicated truths to depict, so its narrative gaps keep us guessing until the end and perhaps beyond. It’s not an especially shapely work, and its murkiness and longueurs have irritated many critics. But even with its overlong coda, I respected and responded to it. It’s like a piece of music that’s richer for its unresolved chords.
Much of its magnetism comes from Freedson-Jackson’s tormented face. He resembles Wil Wheaton in Stand by Me, which isn’t a bad association. He’s faraway — lost in his own mind — but so emotionally raw he’s like a walking wound. Pettyfer’s Nick is, by contrast, unreadable. When the pair stumbles on a vacant motel in which the young female clerk plainly has the hots for him, Nick makes the calculated decision to go off and have sex with her. One reason is that she could obviously let them stay in the motel for more than a night. But does Nick want her, too? (Jeremiah has seen him masturbating in the shower — a fit, handsome man who could use some physical gratification.) In a startling scene, Jeremiah acidly tells the gobsmacked motel clerk that Nick has no use for her, thinks she’s an idiot, and actually likes men. It’s plausible. But there are too many dissonances to be sure.
Radcliff and Wolkstein maintain an atmosphere of paranoia and dread by what they don’t do. The music is ambient, a hum bordering on a buzz that picks up the chitter of insects when the pair goes into the woods. The widescreen makes them small amid the trees and high grass, amid the wood with its pockets of darkness. Jeremiah’s visions provide clues, but not enough to assemble into something definite. Later, there are scenes involving the actor Gene Jones (he played a cult leader in Ti West’s unpleasant The Sacrament, and had small roles in No Country for Old Men and Scott Frank’s Netflix series, Godless), whose tender ministrations can’t help but seem creepy without a larger context. The threat of sexual predation persists — but is it real or implanted in our brains?
To say more about The Strange Ones would pierce the fog, dissipate the strangeness. I can say that I’m of two minds about a couple of supernatural flourishes, among them a black cat that’s a great camera object. But there are shocks at the end that work thunderously well. The story might have seemed obvious — even sentimental — in a conventional linear telling. Twisted into knots it evokes a strange and haunting mind.