From the Archives: Stray is a mesmerizing slow burn

From the Archives: Stray is a mesmerizing slow burn

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

A compelling duality serves as the through-line for Dustin Feneley’s debut film, Stray. On a surface level, not much really happens in the film. It’s quite light on plot overall. Yet at the same time, in order to appreciate this slow burn drama, the viewer cannot be passive. It’s in the small touches, rather than any large, dramatic flourishes, that we see what Feneley’s aims are with this picture. If you can meet its pace, and agree to bask in the visuals, the tone, and the performances, the fact that little happens should be of minimal concern. Consuming this unique tale on a rainy, quarantined day was an experience in tonal perfection.

Kieran Charnock plays Jack, a young ex-convict who has recently been told that the work release program he participates in is essentially giving him the boot. The nature of his crimes — we are told they were violent, but are not given any details until much later, and even then we don’t get much — will prevent him from having a choice in future employment opportunities. Jack understands, and after placating the commanding officer/bearer of bad news, he absconds to a remote area where his father has abandoned a pretty nice little cabin. Meanwhile, we find Grace (Arta Dobroshi) in a similar situation. She’s fresh out of a psychiatric facility, and is essentially facing homelessness. In her quest for something, anything, she stumbles across Jack’s cabin and breaks in. The two form a bond based in their shared suffering, and as they learn more about one another, and about how to function in a world that is happy to leave them behind due to their mistakes, we learn more about the specifics of each of their circumstances.

The thing is, the two lost souls don’t meet until well-past the halfway point of the film. The bulk of the first reel is mostly without dialogue, following Jack as he goes about his tedious day-to-day existence. Peppered in are a few introductory check-ins on Grace. With the film going in the direction it’s apparently headed at the point, it’s admittedly hard not to feel like Grace is getting a touch sidelined when it comes to screen time, especially since Dobroshi’s performance is so commanding, but this issue rounds itself out in the third act, when the two leads really start to develop into full-fledged characters. And really, being a minimalist narrative, to make any perfunctory exposition would be a liability in hindsight.

What could be too slow of a burn is made mesmerizing by not just the central performances, but the filmmaking. Writer/director Dustin Feneley captures the environment with a crisp digital clarity that maintains hard lines of contrast while also highlighting the asymmetrical nature of, well, nature. Oftentimes, the lens keeps the entire depth of field in sharp focus, minimizing the fog of distance to give the audience an overwhelming feeling of smallness amidst a larger landscape. When the narrative moves indoors, the same elimination of visual perspective is used to create a sense of claustrophobia. Almost magically, this feeling of claustrophobia melts away when Jack and Grace share the frame, despite taking up more visual real estate. As they are given license to relax and enjoy one another’s company, we too are allowed a moment to breathe; a moment to understand how important it is for our protagonists to embrace the small blessings they struggle to find.

Cinematographer Ari Wegner (Lady MacBeth, In Fabric) lights every shot in a way that feels naturalistic, but doesn’t look plain in the way that crisp digital photography often can (if this film was not shot digitally and I’m just a doof, please let me know). The frame is given the feel of an open window through which we see our players rather than a screen, but retains the feeling of cinema. There’s none of that hyperreal blandness that is best associated with the motion smoothing setting that your dad doesn’t know how to deactivate on his TV. This is key to making such a lightly plotted film a compelling one — emotion is impeccably evoked through the language of film.


Resolution, if you could even call it that, is of little interest to the narrative, and really, when in life does proper resolution really occur? For the most part, it doesn’t, but we do get tastes of it as personal growth occurs. Stray honors the piecemeal nature of closure and growth. A rule of screenwriting is that the story being told should be the protagonist’s biggest life event, one from which they emerge a new person. But rules, as they say, are made to be broken. The big, life-changing events that have affected Jack and Grace happened long before the film begins, and any bookmarkable happenings henceforth occur long after the movie ends. Feneley’s script smartly avoids giving us the specifics of these events, but lets us know just enough to understand why our heroes are where they are emotionally, and why their respective environments aren’t as malleable as they might be for others. It also gives the audience’s “delay judgment” muscle a workout (and it’s a muscle that atrophies quite expediently if not used). What we ultimately see depicted are essential moments of character growth, designed to invite our empathy.

Like the characters at its center, Stray is a challenging nut to crack, but a worthwhile one if you’re willing to give it your time, attention, and the empathy required to make interaction with it compelling. Those who are willing to offer these items up will be rewarded. I get the sense that later on in the week, certain elements of this film will manifest in my thoughts in a big way, and it’s the metered ambiguity of the plot that I have to thank for this.

Stray is now available on VOD.

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