Quibi’s The Stranger, written and directed by Veena Sud, is many things – it’s a sustained, beautifully photographed exercise in sometimes unbearable tension; a showcase for two of the more exciting young actors working today (Maika Monroe and Dane DeHaan) and a new entry in the incredibly specific subgenre where everything takes place over the course of one night in Los Angeles and things go from bad to worse as the night rolls along (think Miracle Mile or Collateral). It is also a series, told in brief episodes, that is incredibly of-the-moment, one that investigates the role of the victim/survivor and the way that outside forces (like the police and large corporate structures) relate to that person. It’s the perfect thriller for the #MeToo era.
Without getting into too many spoilers, The Stranger is the story of a rideshare driver named Clare (Monroe) who picks up a young man in Los Angeles one night who calls himself Carl (DeHaan). Shortly after Carl gets in her car, he reveals to her that the house where Clare grabbed him was now the scene of several gruesome murders. He’s a killer. And she’s going to be his next victim. Or is she?
Part of what elevates The Stranger is its ability to both engage in and subvert known genre tropes. Much of the foundation of the series is built upon woman-in-jeopardy hallmarks – movies where a character is harassed or intimidated to the point where reality and fantasy start to uneasily swirl. But what makes The Stranger feel so fresh and so modern is its ability to tie the feelings of the character, in particular that of helplessness, into a frank examination about how the world at large (in particular institutions like the police) respond to victims’ stories.
Everywhere Clare goes, she is doubted or second-guessed. At first, the police sound sympathetic but quickly turn skeptical; when she gets on the phone with the rideshare service to report her experience, she is denied the opportunity because he has complained first; even her family doubts her when she calls for their help, stemming from an earlier incident in her past where she made (and then recanted) similar accusations. Even the killer, a psychopath who utilizes a number of psychological tactics on Clare, is constantly investigating and needling her. It’s not enough that he’s engineering her downfall; he has to make her feel like she deserves it.
Sud gracefully mines the thematic material without it ever derailing the propulsive momentum of the story. All of the characters who cast doubt on Clare’s experience or undermines her agency are characters that she would have encountered organically on this journey and most of them carry with them a kind of institutionalized unwillingness to believe. Police, as we have seen time and time again especially this summer, are quick to discount victims’ experiences, especially if they don’t fit a tidy narrative than they’re used to. The rideshare company is programmed to take the side of the victim and never the employee. (And real-life accounts of sexual assaults on the part of rideshare drivers have littered the news.) Even Clare’s family, which should be a source of unconditional understanding and support, is also quick to cast judge the situation, deem it fake, and condemn their daughter at the moment when she needs them the most. Sud is also wise to keep the audience guessing; there are moments where other characters, potential allies, note that they haven’t seen Carl do anything bad and aren’t sure he’s actually the one to blame. We as an audience know that he is 100% the villain, but characters’ expressing their own disbelief allows that to creep into not only Clare’s psychological state but ours as well. Maybe she’s just so stressed out that she made the whole thing up?
And Clare’s struggle to survive, both the evening of being tormented by a killer and the indifference that pretty much everyone is directing towards her, is what makes this a true hallmark of the #MeToo movement. This is, after all, a movement fueled and defined by outrage and the willingness to tell their stories, no matter how much doubt or abuse will follow. Clare constantly pushes through, never lowering herself to the level of her abuser, always thinking quickly and assuredly, and never letting any of the second-guessing get her down. She goes through hell – and keeps going. She muscles through all the casual misogyny and structural bias that has impeded her journey. But at the end of the 13-episode series (told in bite-sized chapters for maximum edge-of-your-seat enjoyment), Clare has been transformed, without ever compromising her values or betraying her own beautiful messiness. With The Stranger, it’s easy to be inspired when you’re not being scared to death.
This article is presented by Quibi.