Jordan Get Out by Jordan Peele is a remarkable, successful picture that has left a comet-like trail scorching through the art and economics of film. It has spawned a slew of opportunistic imitators, but it has also encouraged a generation of disadvantaged filmmakers, particularly Black filmmakers, to utilize thrillers and horror films as vehicles for the issues that are most important to them. Just as important, it convinced studios and production businesses that supporting such filmmakers is not just the ethical thing to do, but also good business.
Last year at this time, the Sundance Film Festival was overrun with stories like these: clever, angry films like Master and Nanny that occasionally chafed against their genre frames, but in unexpected ways. In 2020, Netflix released Remi Weekes’ His Home, one of the greatest British horror films in recent years, a scary haunted-house picture that tackles, in great detail, the experience of Sudanese asylum-seekers clinging to the shaky, eroding foothold they’ve been given in British society.
The Strays, Netflix’s latest British thriller, appears to be a similar proposition at first glance. It hews even closer to Get Out, dropping the supernatural metaphor and horror imagery in favor of something more psychologically genuine, more dangerously near to society’s surface. Yet that’s even more difficult to carry off tonally, and writer-director Nathaniel Martello-White, making his feature debut, fails to do so until the film’s last minutes.
Ashley Madekwe portrays Neve, a refined woman living in rich rural England, where enormous mid-century mansions stretch elegantly amid the woods, towns are full of lovely tea shops, and life is centered around pricey private schools. It’s like a wealthier, less idealistic, and more eccentric version of Sex Education’s dream valley. Except for Neve and her two children, everyone on this planet is white.
Neve, the deputy headteacher of a prestigious school, is accomplished yet self-conscious. She scratches her beautiful straight black wigs and refuses to display her real hair to anybody, including her spouse. We understand what this implies. We’d probably know what that meant if Martello-White hadn’t shown us the same girl many years previously in a poor London housing estate, going by the name Cheryl, and walking out on her unhappy life and violent boyfriend in a prologue.
This prologue is one of the numerous blatant structural decisions that drain the film’s suspense. Instead of gradually revealing Neve/trauma, Cheryl’s film incorporates it from the start.
As a result, when a young Black man and woman appear and begin to disrupt Neve’s ideal existence, it’s not difficult to figure out where they’re from, who they could be, and what they represent.
Martello-White works hard with his shot choices to give these two “shadowy figures” (the logline’s questionable words, not mine) a scary air of mystery that is neither earned nor fitting for the part they do play in the drama. The characters’ impact is completely down to the actors: Jorden Myrie as the young man and Bukky Bakray as the wife. Bakray, who was so brilliant in 2020’s tragic inner-city drama Rocks, has such a lovely, innocent quality that she can suddenly shatter with surprising bitterness, without either mode feeling artificial.
The script unconvincingly portrays these folks as demons before rewinding to explain their narrative in a predictable twist that undermines the film’s moral coherence. Their first portrayal as a threat may be intended to echo how Neve views them, but it’s poor faith filmmaking at its worst. Even when we’ve discovered their much simpler and sadder truth, the film’s genre mechanics can’t shake the image of Myrie and Bakray as frightening house invaders bringing a terrible reckoning. It’s too late; they must continue cosplaying as the evil guys.
Martello-White appears to desire The Strays to be a film about the cracks in British Black identity, as well as socioeconomic inequalities. He constructs the plot around the topic of why and how someone might reinvent their life in a new image, as well as the cost of doing so. These are the kinds of concerns that Peele, an unerring sniper, addressed more directly in 2019’s Us. In 2021’s tragic Passing, which is also available on Netflix, Rebecca Hall focused on the same concepts with a laser concentration.
Martello-White, on the other hand, is unable to pinpoint his target. He is unable to answer his own questions or explain why he has converted a tragic personal event into a psychological thriller. Instead, he has his characters bear the brunt of the blame. The film’s one redeeming grace is the crushing simplicity of its climax, in which Cheryl/Neve takes these meaningless issues into her own hands in an unexpected and perfectly logical way. Who could fault her?
The Strays is now available on Netflix.