Strangerland

Rating: 3 stars out of 4

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Hugo Weaving, Joseph Fiennes

Directed by: Kim Farrant

Running time: 112 minutes

It's always nice to see Aussies playing Aussies. Nicole Kidman and Hugo Weaving (and Joseph Fiennes, a Brit), star in this first feature from director Kim Farrant, set so far in the Australian outback it might as well be on Mars.

Kidman and Fiennes play Catherine and Matthew Parker, newly arrived to the remote town of Nathgari with their teenage daughter Lilly and her younger brother Tommy. The reason for their arrival is soon teased out - suffice to say the sex scandal that embroiled Lilly in their previous home necessitated a move to a new one.

Unfortunately, Lilly appears primed to start something again. It doesn't help that Nathgari, a one-stoplight town apparently constructed out of equal parts clapboard and dust, is one of those scorching locales where people wear as little as possible, and everyone wants to have sex with everyone else, although those who do are almost guaranteed to be punished.

Is that what happens to Lilly and Tommy? All their parents know is that the kids disappeared one night during a dust storm and haven't been heard from since. The local cop (Weaving), organizes search parties but finds himself drawn to Catherine, whose marital relations are the only cold thing in town.

Screenwriters Michael Kinirons and Fiona Seres populate the movie with no end of suspects, including the kids at the local skateboard park who follow Lilly with tongues hanging out; and handyman Burtie (Meyne Wyatt), who's a bit slow - but does that mean he's incapable of harming someone, or incapable of stopping himself? Officer Weaving does what he can, but his history - sexual and otherwise - with several of the locals makes it difficult for him to remain impartial.

Strangerland goes far on its performances, and farther still on cinematography. Farrant favours slowly panning aerial footage of the uninhabited outback, which seems capable of rolling over the tiny outpost of humanity, swallowing the town the way it seems to have swallowed two of its inhabitants. The sound design, meanwhile, features a near constant drone of buzzing insects; one senses that a day or two in such an atmosphere could drive a person mad.

There ultimately isn't much more to recommend the movie, which grows more mysterious by the minute until it seems a satisfactory conclusion is almost impossible. But as hot summer sizzlers go, this one turns up the heat.