REVIEW: Stranger (2019)

dir. Dmitriy Tomashpolskiy.

When a team of synchronised swimmers go missing from their pool mid-performance, Inspector Gluhovsky (Anastasiya Yevtushenko) begins an investigation to try and uncover their fate. It’s a thrilling setup for Tomashpolskiy’s weirdly elliptic, genre-bending head trip which, in less ambitious hands, could have been a straight-laced procedural. Instead things unfold as if David Lynch smoked crack whilst watching A Cure for Wellness (2016) and The Shape of Water (2017), rationality and reason gurgling down the plughole in an existential nightmare.

Gluhovsky’s investigation leads her to a health spa, located with dream-logic implausibility at a water treatment plant. The uncanniness doesn’t stop there, a tour of the facility revealing a stilted, all female staff and an interior design modelled on the Overlook Hotel. There are horror tropes, yes – a creepy doll; children crying next door – but these become talismanic totems, repeated as time and characters keep slipping in and out of cohesion with each other. The result is to be mesmerically adrift, as if Gluhovsky (and the audience) were playing a point-and-click video game where all the levels look the same but just might include clues to unlock the next step.

Themes of absent fathers pervade (the film is dedicated to Tomashpolskiy’s dad, whom he never met), but these are wrapped in broader concerns about missing people in general, and how some – like that synchronised swimming team – may sink beneath the surface without a trace. Identity is similarly fluid, with characters who may (or may not) be the same person, and the boundaries between conspiracy, psychosis, dream and reality being porous and ill-defined, spilling into one another.

Ultimately one is left with an experience that defies a conclusive reading: something that will doubtlessly frustrate more logical audience members but is likely to bewitch those looking leave their conscious minds behind and drift upon the waves.

Tim Coleman

STRANGER has its UK Premiere at the Arrow Video FrightFest Digital Edition 2 on 22nd October 2020.

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