Written by: Matt Patti | October 2nd, 2023
Strange Darling (JT Mollner, 2023) 3 out of 4 stars.
The art of deception can be a filmmaker’s greatest asset. A director chooses exactly what they want the audience to see, and therein lies the power of suggestion. A twist may or may not be revealed in the third act, but nonetheless, in most movies the audience doesn’t see the whole picture until the very end.
While many films wait until the third act to reveal their biggest secret, some films sprinkle twists and turns throughout. A film that can keep the viewer guessing is one in which the viewer will be much more invested. Such is the case with director JT Mollner’s thriller Strange Darling.
In Strange Darling, a man (Kyle Gallner, Smile) stalks a woman (Willa Fitzgerald, The Goldfinch) in the wilderness. With hunting rifle in hand, the man follows the woman through a forest, relentless in his pursuit. The woman manages to flee to a nearby cabin where an old couple resides. She knocks at the door, screaming for help, but will they answer her desperate cries?
I’m leaving the overview of the film intentionally vague in order to reveal no spoilers. When I saw the publicity emails for the film, I only knew the above synopsis going in. In my opinion, that is the best way to experience Strange Darling.
The film is, at its core, a cat and mouse tale. However, the way the timeline is presented is what makes Strange Darling so unique. The plot is told in six chapters, but the chapters are shown out of order. At first, this is a bit bothersome, especially before the audience figures out why. However, in the end, we begin to realize that this storytelling tactic is genius.
We start in chapter three, a suspenseful chase scene right in the middle of the sequence. We begin to form a notion as to exactly what is going on based on that, but there’s so much we still don’t know. Then, we rewind to chapter one, where we get to meet our main characters and see how they started.
It is here where some very timely, topical dialogue is shared about modern dating culture and violence against women. It’s humorous and sad at the same time. Such topics discussed include how no one asks for phone numbers anymore and how women would have more casual sex if they were assured they weren’t sleeping with a serial killer.
Gallner and Fitzgerald shine in their roles, both turning in spectacular performances. I’d even argue it’s the best I’ve seen from these two, though my sample size is not too big. They manage to show flashes of personality without revealing too much about who their characters are. The dialogue is intriguing, the characters are compelling, and Gallner and Fitzgerald have a natural chemistry that carries through the whole film.
After seeing how it all begins in chapter one, we jump back and forth between chapters until concluding with chapter six. Again, I understand this can be maddening to some, but for those that stick with it and have patience, it’s worth it. With each chapter, the viewer discovers, tidbit by tidbit, more information that is vital to understanding the bigger picture.
The way Strange Darling is structured puts you right in the palm of the director’s hands. Mollner (Outlaws and Angels) expertly crafts scenes to give you just enough information but not too much to spoil the film’s largest surprise. Almost every scene subverts expectations, and he uses clever editing and perfectly timed cuts to aid in the suspense.
Though much of the film is fantastic, there are a few shortcomings. A number of incredibly stupid decisions are made by some characters, and while we better understand a few of these decisions later on, some still don’t make any sense. On a technical note, the sound mix is a bit bothersome, with the dialogue very quiet compared to everything else. Finally, I do feel the film could end a bit earlier than it does, as the conclusion drags on a bit with a few unnecessary scenes.
Nevertheless, Strange Darling is an edge-of-your-seat thriller that leaves you guessing till the very end. The characters are layered and well-explored and the performances are outstanding. You never quite know what to expect in any given moment. Then, once you begin to put the puzzle pieces together, your brain starts to form theories, furthering your investment in the story. It becomes very exciting to connect the dots, and quite fulfilling when you recognize the purpose behind some of the narrative decisions. Director JT Mollner presents a delightfully twisty experience that should satisfy most, or at the very least leave the viewer with something to ponder.
[Strange Darling just had its world premiere at the 2023 Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas.]