Cinematic Releases: The Little Stranger (2018) - Reviewed

Lenny Abrahamson, director of this weekend’s new release The Little Stranger, has had quite the interesting career. Abrahamson cut his teeth on a number of mini-indies before breaking out with the quirky comedy Frank. He would follow up Frank with one of the best films of 2015, Room, a dark, haunting tale that delivered a well-deserved Oscar to Brie Larson and a performance by nine-year-old Jacob Tremblay that can be called one of the best performances by any actor in the last decade or so. With The Little Stranger, Abrahamson was clearly looking to stay in the dark and haunting wheelhouse, but this time around produces profoundly less successful results.

Domhnall Gleeson, that guy who’s in everything these days, plays young Faraday, a doctor practicing in a small English town just after the end of The Great War. Faraday is called to treat a member of the Ayers family in their once grand but now dilapidated estate. As he settles in with the Ayers family, he comes to learn more about his family’s, especially his own, connection to the Ayers’ and the estate, and uncovers some shocking secrets along the way.

The Little Stranger is an absolutely beautiful film to look at. Abrahamson and cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland, clearly bringing his eye for grandeur from the episodes of The Crown he worked on, make the crumbling homestead and weed-infested grounds look breathtaking, adding quite a bit to the film’s dark and foreboding mood. It’s a shame that for all of its breathtaking beauty, it’s the story that falls flat. Based on Sarah Waters’ novel, The Little Stranger shifts almost moment-to-moment from period drama to Gothic love story to twisty supernatural thriller. The film suffers from never adopting a singular focus; by trying to be so many things, it succeeds at none of them. Slow burn horror may be all the rage these days, as evidenced by the success of films like The VVitch and Hereditary, but what those films got right is what The Little Stranger never gets around to figuring out: all of the creepy atmosphere in the world won’t save you if your story isn’t any good.

It’s said that the greatest sin any piece of art can commit is not ineptitude, it’s being boring. The glacially slow burn of The Little Stranger would be a lot easier to take if it weren’t not only bone dry, but building to climax that doesn’t deliver on its promises. A talented cast, best-selling source material, a great director and gorgeous cinematography seems like a can’t-miss on paper, but even all of those combined can only take a film so far. The Little Stranger never goes far enough in any direction to be as compelling as it truly would like to believe it is. There are far better creepy tales, far better period dramas, and far better uses of the talent that came together to make this film. And, even for a box office weekend as desolate as Labor Day typically is, there are far better choices to spend your movie-going time and money on than The Little Stranger.

--Mike Stec