Stray: Kiwi Dustin Feneley's indelibly beautiful, human and near-perfect film
At an un-named detention facility somewhere near Wellington, a young man is told that the pre-release work-experience programme he is on has been pulled from under him. The employer is "cutting back".
The young man – we learn his name is Jack – absconds. He takes the ferry across the strait to Te-Wai-Pounamu and then hits the road further south, eventually halting at an isolated crib somewhere near Alexandra in the ridiculously photogenic Central Otago.
Meanwhile, Grace is a young woman newly released from psychiatric care. She is heading into homelessness, at best, when she stumbles across Jack's dwelling.
A momentary conflict is resolved. The pair learn to trust each other a little.
Stray – the title is very deliberately both noun and verb – is an understated fable of loss, alienation, banishment and – maybe – hope.
We know by Grace's European accent (she is played by Arta Dobroshi, of the Dardenne Brothers' Lorna's Silence) that she is a very long way from home. And while Jack is maybe – we glean – living in his own family's disused property, and perhaps has people who know him well very close by, he is also utterly isolated from his present surroundings by the events of his past.
Stray is a quiet and internalised film that will demand your attention and compassion to really appreciate. A resolution – of sorts – when it arrives, is conveyed in a single, wordless shot.
Many films have a quietly tragic backstory bubbling away beneath their "plot". Stray is a rare one, in that the quiet underpinning of the story is brought to the fore, while the noisier, more facile human interactions are allowed to become the odd asides that pepper the narrative.
A short sequence set in a small-town bingo game would sit happily within a Roy Andersson or Aki Kaurismaki film. But Stray never sets out to be self-consciously surreal or odd-for-the-sake-of-it. It's just that small-town New Zealand can be a very idiosyncratic and taciturn place, and Stray captures that perfectly.
If Stray reminded me of any film, it was David Lynch's The Straight Story, with its same sense of deeply bruised humanity rousing itself for the journey home. The only New Zealand-made comparisons I could draw would be Armagan Ballantyne's The Strength of Water and Daniel Borgman's under-appreciated The Weight of Elephants. But Stray is narratively more successful than either.
Writer-director Dustin Feneley has achieved something very special on debut here. Stray is an indelibly beautiful, human and near-perfect film. Near-perfect in that I believe it achieves almost exactly what Feneley set out to do: to tell a story in glimpses, without exposition, in a way that requires our engagement and investment in the characters.
Stray is film-making as Haiku, telling us just enough to hint at something wondrous and near-universal, but asking us to make our own leaps where the connective tissue might be.
Feneley is hugely aided by a brace of very good central performances. Dobroshi hits every note as Grace, toggling from fearfulness to bravery and belief in a moment, while Kieran Charnock plays Jack as plausibly inarticulate and uncertain, while the anger and loss he lives with every day flits behind his eyes and pushes at the veins of his throat.
The minimalist narrative won't satisfy everybody, and that's fine. But I say on a big screen, with Ari Wegner's astonishing cinematography properly on display – Stray is the best-photographed New Zealand movie since Out of the Blue and In My Father's Den – this is a film to be watched, appreciated and watched again.
You can put Stray up with the very best films ever made in New Zealand, and pencil it into your top-ten of 2018 already.
Film review: Stray
From The Quiet Earth and Sleeping Dogs to In My Father’s Den and Out Of The Blue, the New Zealand “man alone” film is a genre unto itself. Having now reached the point of parody (knowing in Hunt For The Wilderpeople, less knowing in far too many short films), it’s fair to approach any new entrant in this field with a healthy dose of scepticism.
Ten years in the making, Dustin Feneley’s ambitious crowd-funded debut feature Stray distinguishes itself immediately from its brethren with its lack of score, striking static framing, and an austerity rarely found on these shores, more common to post-Haneke European art cinema; the first — and for quite some time, only — dialogue scene is staged in a tableau that recalls Steve McQueen’s Hunger. These stark choices immediately double as a litmus test for the audience, as the slow pace and stillness — initially difficult to read as tension or release — will engage some and bore others. But it sets the rhythm and intent of this powerfully controlled film effectively.
Stray’s opening passage follows Jack (Kieran Charnock), a young hard man at the end of a three-year jail term, attempting to re-integrate into an indifferent society, one where his family members are distant and disinterested and job prospects are poor. His soft-spoken manner is difficult to reconcile with the unspecified violent crime he’s committed, and Charnock wisely and convincingly underplays his role, leaving it unclear what rage remains and just how deeply it might be buried as he heads across the Cook Strait, to a remote cabin and an uncertain future. Throughout this journey, Feneley’s concerns are never about advancing story but about observing moments, situating Jack in a rugged terrain, and letting us observe the rituals and behaviour of a man who is alone and quiet but clearly not at peace.
Perhaps a half-hour in — certainly at the point one might become exasperated with the lack of forward plot development — the story suddenly shifts to a mental health respite facility, where the brittle Grace (Arta Dobroshi, Lorna’s Silence) is ending her stay. As with Jack, she exits an institution and enters an uncertain future without support. Abandoned by family, and traveling on her own, she makes her way through unoccupied rural residences, at one point wandering through a particularly grand house as if it’s an alien museum, making the distance between domesticity and her place in it seeming completely intractable.
It’s a foregone conclusion that these two alienated loners will cross paths. With the stark aesthetic and unsentimental tone, as well as a rifle on the scene, one can be forgiven for expecting that things won’t end well. But Feneley’s no provocateur, and has bigger concerns on his mind than shocking the audience. Through watching Jack and Grace — a name, perhaps, just slightly too on the nose — negotiate a relationship as unique and challenging as they are, Feneley’s dramatic concerns become clear. Can we change? Can we heal? Can we leave behind that which scars us?
While not an apolitical film — an implicit critique of the failures in New Zealand’s social net hangs over the entire proceedings — Feneley never lets social commentary overpower his narrative, constantly returning to the internal struggle, and never romanticising the damage his protagonists suffer from. Through patient observation of intimate moments — and an increasingly mobile camera, paralleling the character’s growth as they begin to interact more and more with locals and face their past — Stray finds its way to an ending so subtle, it may take a moment to even recognise the significance of what’s happened. (Those who have checked out earlier may miss it entirely.)
Most of the accolades for Stray will go to Charnock’s wound-up and wounded performance, to DoP Ari Wegner for photographing interiors as strikingly as the South Island mountains that play the backdrop, and to Feneley himself, for capturing moments of striking realism in such an aestheticized manner. (Jack’s visit to a local bingo game, a scene where nothing much happens, has stuck with me for weeks because of its fulsome local colour and lack of condescension.) But worthy of singling out is the contribution of sound designer Dick Reade, whose attention to detail makes the lengthy dialogue-free passages of the film — don’t call them silences, as they’re anything but — sing. It’s a quiet song, but if you listen closely, it’s captivating.
Film review: Stray
Mixing in elements of Starred Up, the landscapes of New Zealand and edges of last year's great festival hit God's Own Country, Dustin Feneley's strikingly sparse Stray is a ferocious debut.
Focussing in on Kieran Charnock's Jack who finds himself on parole for GBH, it's the story of one man's attempted escape from the confines of his own tortured demons and prison. Trapped in central Otago and taunted by something within, Jack's routine is one of isolation above all else.
But that changes when he returns home one night to find Grace (Arta Dobroshi) in the woods - in one of the film's rare scenes of action. She's seeking refuge and Jack reluctantly agrees to provide shelter...
Stray is a feature in no hurry to get where it's going and it's all the better for it.
It takes at least half of the film before the protagonists meet, and there are very few words spoken, though Charnock offers up some extreme subtleties in how he changes his interactions when there's someone else, someone unknown in his orbit.
But it's in his interactions with others that the true pain starts to emerge, and Charnock channels the unease well. Equally Dobroshi, with her unfamiliarity and unease gives Grace an edge that makes their connection understandable and natural.
Feneley's made the film a lighting dream; from the clear crisp shots of the outside mountains to moments of intimacy within the cabin, the screen has rarely looked more enticing. The South Island's rarely looked better either, a combination of both desolation, isolation, beauty and despondency all wrapped up into one big screen parcel.
Its ending may seem abrupt and potentially up for debate, but Stray's capability for exploring the human connection makes this debut a tenacious one and marks Feneley out as a Kiwi talent to watch.
Film review: Stray
Movie review: Stray
Verdict: A chilly, uncompromising classic
Less a straightforward narrative than a lyrical tone-poem, Kiwi filmmaker Dustin Feneley's self-funded debut feature is a strong contender for the best film to come out of New Zealand this year.
Off the back of a remarkable genesis - eight years trapped in development before a record-breaking crowdfunding campaign - Stray is a breath of fresh, freezing mountain air.
It's hard not to get excited about a film with such potential to be a bellwether in the way we think about and, significantly, make films in New Zealand. Feneley's direction is uncompromising in its control, subtlety and precision - reflecting a project that, even in the bleakest and most difficult of financial circumstances, refused to compromise. Stray has a desire to really push a cinematic vision beyond what is simply the easiest sell.
The film itself, lamentably doomed to be dismissed by some as slow or ambiguous, is a sparse, rural South Island-set story of an ex-con (played with wounded, masculine vulnerability by Kieran Charnock) attempting to outrun a violent past. Eventually, he bonds with another "stray", a woman (Arta Dobroshi, in an expressive, often silent turn) recently released from an extended stay at a psychiatric hospital. Both are at an extreme remove from the rest of society because of their circumstances and, to a degree, by choice.
Fittingly for a film about such consuming, painful loneliness, it takes place in long, quiet, measured takes, often locked in still, gorgeous frames. The combined effect creates an alien world out of the well-worn landscapes of the Southern Alps.
The result is something new, compelling and haunting. Its intricate design and measured pace draw you into a tense, hypnotic spell broken only by the catharsis of finding the human elements in a world that has abandoned its characters.
It is an iceberg of a film - what appears above the surface barely scratches at the behemoth of emotion lurking within. That the film exists in this state at all is astonishing - that it is this damn good might just be a miracle.
Stray fortifies hope in the breadth and ambition of New Zealand film
With an unmatched synthesis of attentive direction and rigorous aesthetic intent, Stray fortifies hope in the breadth and ambition of New Zealand film. Set during a permeating southern winter, the film follows tortured strangers Jack (Kiernan Charnock) and Grace (Arta Dobroshi) recalibrating their lives in the mountains of remote Central Otago. In this exquisite debut from writer/director Dustin Feneley, the two find themselves in a charged, intricate intimacy.
It’s terrifically bracing to watch a character study that doesn’t patronise its audience. With a textural pacing at times vaguely reminiscent of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, Stray renders the meticulous details of relentless isolation. In one scene, Jack grimaces as he runs water over a wound on his palm, then patches himself up. Is there anything more stupidly lonely than injuring yourself when no one else is around? Later, when Grace first stays the night, Jack makes up a bed for her, tenderly laying a sheet on the mattress; a small yet momentous gesture of effort and care he never afforded himself.
These poetic details are ever enriched by Sophie Durham’s expert production design and the phenomenal eye of cinematographer Ari Wegner. Natural light and soft shadows are expertly diffused to conjure winter’s aching fatigue. Fogged windows, crisp duvets, and worn leather dining chairs build on the film’s naturalistic tactility.
Carefully considering the relationship between masculinity and situation, New Zealand film history echoes throughout Stray. And yet, the perceptive contours shaped throughout the film truly do constitute a breath of fresh air.
TimeOut's Top 10 Picks for the Film Festival
What's it about?
This self-funded Kiwi feature focuses on two lonely, damaged souls trying to escape their past who bond in the barren landscape of the rural South Island.
Why should you see it?
After an exceedingly lengthy process to finally get it to the big screen, which included a record-breaking crowdfunding campaign, Kiwi filmmaker Dustin Feneley's sparse arthouse drama is remarkably shot, quietly powerful and totally uncompromising in its vision.
Capturing New Zealand’s moody and majestic southern landscape with terrific clarity, Stray demands to be seen on the big screen
Two damaged strangers fall into a complex intimate relationship in Dustin Feneley’s beautiful and rigorous debut feature film, shot in Otago against the backdrop of the breathtaking Southern Alps.
One of the most strikingly photographed New Zealand films in recent memory, Stray is the statement-making feature debut of writer/director Dustin Feneley. Set in the wintry south, this bracingly spare character drama frames Aotearoa’s oft-filmed landscapes in a clear and startling new light.
Jack (Kieran Charnock, The Rehearsal), a taciturn young man on parole for grievous bodily harm, holes up in a cabin somewhere in Central Otago. It’s not clear whether he’s trying to forget the past or reconcile with it, although his hesitancy with locals suggests he’s much closer to the scene of the crime than he’d care to admit. Locked away in a prison of his own making, Jack one evening encounters Grace, very far from home and seeking refuge. Played by the captivating Arta Dobroshi, star of the Dardenne brothers’ Lorna’s Silence, Grace’s own private struggles linger beneath her attraction to Jack. These lonely, enigmatic strangers drift into a relationship that promises to either heal or hurt.
There’s a deliberate – in the context of the short history of our national cinema even daring – aesthetic discipline to this film, whose suppressed emotions lend greater power to its visuals. Ari Wegner, the talented DP behind Lady Macbeth’s intense painterly compositions, does astonishing things with darkness and diffused natural light. Within these stunning images, the Man Alone tradition is alive and well, but it’s also crisply refocused through Feneley’s commitment to stark silences and bold cinematic spaces into a kind of hard-edged New Zealand poetry.