How ‘The Stranger’ Uses Color Temperature and Shot Construction to Evoke Fincher, Mann, and Refn

     August 23, 2020

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Veena Sud’s new series The Stranger, about a young woman being terrorized by her deranged rideshare passenger over the course of a single night, paints a very specific picture of Los Angeles. Immediately bringing to mind the films of Michael Mann and David Fincher, the series’ use of cool color tones like muted grays and blues, shadowy streets, and wide-open spaces work together to convey a persistent feeling of dread. Clare’s (Maika Monroe) frantic attempts to escape Carl E. (Dane DeHaan) effectively act as the scariest tour of Los Angeles ever, taking her from the sweeping views atop the Hollywood Hills to an inky black subway tunnel in which Carl isn’t the only thing pursuing her.

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Image via Quibi

Both the premise and the visual style of The Stranger evoke Mann’s 2004 film Collateral. In that film as well as in Sud’s series, a Los Angeles taxi driver is being menaced by a murderous passenger. Mann shot much of it handheld, keeping the audience in close proximity to the two main characters. Similarly, Sud uses handheld footage liberally to the same effect – we always feel like we’re right on the ground with Clare, creating a visceral tension as she tries to evade the relentless Carl. The city itself becomes a sinister figure because we’re never given an omniscient viewpoint. With very few exceptions, the audience is side-by-side with Clare for the entire terrifying night. Interestingly, Sud drops a subtle nod to Collateral on a billboard in the background of one episode.

There are echoes of Fincher’s Panic Room as well, which used a similar color palette to create tension. The characters stop just short of blending in with the background, adding to the feeling that Carl could ooze in and out of any corner at any moment. The subdued palette also allows moments of fright to pop even more, like the sight of Carl’s bright red sneakers or the seemingly cheerful yellow sunflowers in Clare’s apartment that is given an unsettling new context. A tense chase through a foreboding subway tunnel bleeds seamlessly into a backroom nightclub full of people completely oblivious to the horror happening literally right next to them. The bright lights of a gas station shine like an oasis surrounded by predatory darkness. Much like in John Carpenter’s Halloween, normally familiar settings are transformed into pockets of dread thanks to the lighting, color tones, and camera work making us believe that there’s a monster lurking around.

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Image via Quibi

The Stranger also gives off strong Nicolas Winding Refn vibes, specifically his 2011 film Drive. Los Angeles at night is a hell of a beast, and both Refn’s film and Sud’s series capture the overwhelming expansiveness of it while exploring some of its grimier sides. However, Refn uses it to frame his main character, a nameless hyper-violent criminal-turned-vigilante, as a force rather than a person, someone who can disappear into that expansiveness as easily as he can drive a getaway car. In The Stranger, it’s a sinister presence that has trapped Clare and is indifferent to her plight. Sud utilizes this to make Clare seem hopelessly isolated in a city of millions. This isolation is reinforced time and again – nobody believes that she’s being chased by a madman, and even though she’s rarely physically alone, she’s never safe (not even in a police station).

The Stranger has somewhat of an advantage over the other films I’ve mentioned by virtue of its format. Quibi designs its programming to be viewed on a smartphone, and a major component of the series is Carl using Clare’s technology against her. It’s somewhat similar to watching Jaws in a swimming pool – at any moment you’re expecting to hear Carl’s creepy message alert tone pop up while you’re staring at the screen. And if you weren’t already paranoid about someone hacking your phone or laptop camera to spy on you, you will be after a few episodes. (I found my eye wandering over to my iPhone’s camera lens more than once.) It’s an unexpectedly effective new meta-tool that blends well with the more traditional methods The Stranger uses to craft suspense. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go feverishly delete every rideshare app from my phone.

This article is presented by Quibi.

Television