Shadows of Jordan Peele’s Get Out looms HEAVILY over “The Strays”, a social thriller that has too many hands tied to capitalize on its inspirations despite having silvers of an unsettling, drama buried beneath its layers.
The main thing that kept this story mildly interesting from the beginning is what it attempted to do with its main character and all that surrounded her. Cheryl is so constantly flustered by her own perceptions of what should be versus what isn't as well as the internal guilt and manifested external rage within her; it’s supposed to be this intriguing examination of race, privilege and the difficulty of social mobility for black Britons adjusting to living in the U.K in the modern day. Being so engulfed in self-hatred over your skin complexion for material wealth is a fascinating premise and could've been a great psychological thriller but one: Get Out already did it better and two: they bail outright on trying to elaborate on it further NOT because it has no interest in doing it but because it barely has any idea HOW.
Splitting the narrative into three Rashomon-style chapters isn’t a bad idea on paper, but the writing doesn’t capitalize on what the structure calls for and vice versa, both of which split off in wildly different directions to compensate for the alleged chaos. Even if you did convince me that the structure of this story was meant to be stilted and strange to give off that impression of life spiraling out of control, the lack of any credible stakes kinda defeat the purpose of all that tension being built up.
Every other character minus Cheryl is strictly two-dimensional, dialogue is arbitrarily basic, the music wants to be orchestral and mysteriously idyllic but isn’t, the atmosphere wants to be tense and unsettling but isn’t and for a film that marketed itself as a thriller, drama and horror all at once, it isn’t even the tiniest bit scary.
If anything, the part that I’ve heard many people complain about, the ending of the film is somehow the scariest part of it; it makes up the best and worst part of the story all at once. On one hand, it does put somewhat of a dirty bow on Cheryl’s character, revealing that she will always value herself over others and how she won’t accept a life she thinks she doesn’t deserve. It's very in-character and, given the circumstances, makes sense and leaves behind a telling final image. On the other hand, just like ‘We Summon The Darkness’, it places most of the movies weight on this major twist/ reveal that should have implications for its characters and the environment around them but proceeds to not really do anything with.
With that being said, not all of this falls squarely on Nathaniel Martello-White’s directing, for he has a minimalist approach to it, grappling a solid sense of highlighting potent unease and despair while sticking mostly to a foreboding tone.
The visual aesthetic looks more dimensional and specific than other Netflix movies, despite keeping that overlit, glaring sheen that’s become their telltale mark. Camerawork, in general, is fairly competent and the editing makes the best out of an odd situation. Some bits of the sound design are genially unsettling and the performances throughout are ripe with energy and have weight to them despite often bordering on cartoonish.
And on an odd note, this film doesn’t resort to perpetuating violence or degradation against Black characters to get a point across so that’s a nice touch.
An afterimage of a much, MUCH better film, it’s a damn shame the end result turned out the way that it did.