Starring: Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman, Gemma Ward, Kip Weeks, Laura Margolis. Rated R.
The Strangers is allegedly based on actual events, but even if that
true – and rest assured, it isn’t – one might reasonably wonder whether this
vile cat-and-mouse exercise has anything to offer beyond the dubious thrill of
watching helpless prey suffer.
Owing as much to Funny Games, Michael Haneke’s contemplation of murder as nihilistic
sport, as to last year’s Vacancy,
which Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale stumble onto the set of a snuff film,
Brian Bertino’s directorial debut is a nasty piece of work, luridly staging a
home invasion in one of those sleepy suburbs where the screams of the dying go
unheard. It is there that James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) find
themselves when a stranger arrives at their door, asking for Tamara.
is what Hitchcock famously
termed a MacGuffin, a plot device intended only to advance the story, in this
case by bringing the beleaguered couple face to face with the first of their
masked tormentors. As the evening plods along, two more arrive, each with a
gift for disappearing on cue. They stalk their victims in and around the house
when it suits them, conveniently fading into the background whenever they’re in
Credit Bertino for hesitating to
rush into the action, preferring instead to bide his time as James and
Kristen’s uninvited guests make their presence felt without revealing their
endgame. Lesser directors might have been quick to give their audience a cheap
money shot, but Bertino seems more interested in buildups than payoffs, just as
his killers seem happier to toy with their victims than to finish them.
a strategy that works well at
first, but Bertino, directing his own script, keeps the game going too long. If
Hitchcock played the audience like a piano, Bertino plays until the strings
snap – whatever tension he generates in the early going is undermined by too
many empty setups. He cries wolf often, but by the time his beasts bare their
fangs, nobody’s listening.
The theme, by now, is achingly
familiar. The Strangers, like Haneke’s
Games and David Fincher’s Panic
Room, is every homeowner’s nightmare taken to its grisliest
extreme. The lesson, of course, is that you’re never safe, even (or especially)
in the comfort of your own living room, from the threat of humiliation,
mutilation or worse.
Bertino invites us to watch James
and Kristen as they squirm, hunted by a trio of Manson-esque savages whose
motives are distressingly arbitrary. (Asked to explain their choice of victims,
their response is more chilling than any act of on-screen violence: “Because
you were home.”) Ultimately, it’s an invitation best refused. The Strangers offers a few memorable scares, but it is less chilling in
its simplicity than numbing in its banality.