The Strays aspires to Hanekian horror in shades of British grey; the substance may be thin, but this is a tightly wound, surprisingly nasty psychological thriller.
Reminiscent of David Lynch’s opening frames in Blue Velvet, there’s something perversely serene about the lives of those in Castle Combe – England’s “prettiest village” – in The Strays. The camera drifts across its residents, standing idly and emotionless, almost like they’re frozen in time.
Is this the so-called British Dream, or is it purgatory in disguise; fire without light, the idea of an idyllic life poisoned by Range Rovers, BMWs, and massive homes, just to be doomed by an everlasting need for “more.”
This is one idea at the heart of Nathaniel Martello-White’s movie, which doesn’t so much skewer the UK’s own liberal elite as it highlights the insecurities fueled by code-switching, internalized racism, and resenting oneself.
The Strays shows off the “British dream”
“Is it wrong to want more?” Neve (Ashley Madekwe) asks from her perfectly respectable London flat, bemoaning being treated like “sh*t on the sole of her shoe” and a “reprobate” for asking for help. Here’s the thing, though: she has a job, as does her partner – they just like “fancy credit cards.”
Years later, Neve sits in front of a mirror practicing her hoity-toity “Wonderful morning, isn’t it?” accent. Everything about her is quite different: her voice, her hair, her demeanor. She says she’s a “proud Black woman”, but in practice, she’s desperate to seem white. She also has a different family: husband Ian (Justin Salinger) and their two kids Sebastian (Samuel Small) and Mary (Maria Almeida).
She works as the deputy head at the local private school, where both her children attend. She has an exemplary record and appears to be well-liked by others in the community – although, that does come with charged, yet oblivious caveats. She’s “practically” one of them, one woman tells Neve, a word she can’t swallow.
No amount of “expensive shampoo” and new video game consoles can protect her from her past, as two mysterious figures – Marvin (Jorden Myrie) and Abigail (Bukky Bakray) – begin appearing in and around her daily life. Their intent isn’t necessarily malicious, but Neve’s paranoia begins to consume her.
Paradise begets terror
That’s pretty much all we can say without getting ruining the film – and trust me, it’s a ride worth taking. At a tight 97 minutes, each moment propels the crumbling of Neve’s precious, middle-class existence. When the knife-edge suspense gives way to terror, you’ll be glued to the screen. Many have already compared it to Jordan Peele’s work, which seems a little reductive – it feels more attuned to the sort of jittery, targeted viewing experience found in Michael Haneke’s work, particularly Funny Games.
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Martello-White also penned the script, full of sharp, sociopolitical jabs and observations: one white man describes dreads as “ethnic”, another describes his mixed-race family as his “tribe”, and one says: “The only colors that matter are team colors.” The characterizations across the board are a bit thin, but they’re not ineffective, also strengthened by some strong performances.
Madekwe is maddening to watch, in the best way. It’s not that her character is uncomfortable in her own skin, it’s how undyingly she wants to keep up the charade; every itch of her wig gets louder, and each tremble brings a larger wobble. Myrie and Bakray leave the biggest impression, honing their respective charismas to somehow torment and make us sympathize with them.
If only the movie’s aesthetics were as involving as the story. It’s a common criticism of Netflix movies: why do they all look like that; that almost-imperceptible, homogenous palette without the ping and pop of Technicolor and superior digital photography? Adam Scarth’s compositions are a casualty of the streaming platform’s requirements, clearly – this is a dream destined to become a nightmare, but through the eye, it’s all steeped in uninspired reality.
It just about gets away with its not-so-subtle use of music; ‘E soffitto e pareti’ from Madama Butterfly scores the opening shot of the English countryside, while Giggs’ Talkin da Hardest kicks off Marvin and Abigail’s segment. That’s another thing: its episodic nature may make it attractive to the pause-and-pee-hardy among you, but it drip-feeds the viewer as a result. It already has a telling combo of needle drops and framing to open each ‘chapter’, so titling them is a pointless exercise.
The Strays review score: 3/5
A life-invasion thriller with bite where it matters, The Strays flexes its muscles as it ratchets up the tension, wading into depths that may take you by surprise.
The Strays will be available to stream on Netflix from February 22.