REVIEW: “The Little Stranger” is mysterious, lacks bite

From the mind of director Lenny Abrahamson, “The Little Stranger” executes suspense through the lens of memory and psychological terror. The film was released in theaters Friday. (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“The Little Stranger” is a demanding film. It expects viewers to play by the rules it sets, which mainly involve keeping them, as well as its characters, in the dark up until the very last frame. Where the average thriller would employ dramatic irony to place viewers one step ahead of the characters (think of the “don’t go in there!” shouts that accompany watching a character in a horror film approach their untimely demise), “The Little Stranger” refrains from divulging crucial information unless the characters themselves discover it; the effect is the type of suspense that does not fear what will happen so much as it yearns to make sense of what is happening. Concealing the plot in this way is a double-edged sword; it serves to elevate curiosity and engagement, but can also lose the audience’s attention as it eventually feels like it is going nowhere.

Despite its shortcomings, “The Little Stranger” is an intelligent work that could only come from equally intelligent creators namely, Sarah Water, who wrote the novel of the same name, and Lenny Abrahamson, director of the 2015 drama “Room.” Abrahamson has proven his affinity for stories that probe the human psyche in his two major works: “Frank” (2014), which peered into the despair accompanying the artistic process, and “Room,” which explored the mental consequences of prolonged oppression that suddenly ends.

Set in the summer of 1948, “The Little Stranger” tells the story of a British country doctor, Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), who answers a house call at Hundreds Hall — a dilapidated former palace in the countryside. His subsequent doctoral visits to the hall make him witness to strange patterns of behavior on the part of the resident family, the Ayres (played by Ruth Wilson, Will Poulter and Charlotte Rampling). He mentions early on that he had visited the hall once before, as a child accompanying his mother to her job as a maid; according to Faraday, the house cast a spell on him that day.

As the plot progresses, Faraday returns to the house constantly, sometimes without an invitation, drawn to it like a magnet. His thoughts rarely veer from Hundreds Hall and the memory of his first visit; its grandeur reawakens the spell it cast on him in his childhood, and its effects grow stronger as the memory replays incessantly. “The Little Stranger” is (among other things) an inquiry into dark memories, how they are repressed, and what happens when such memories are suddenly ignited.

Rarely detracting from Faraday’s point of view, the film is consistent in its style which perfectly adorns its gloomy subject matter. The mystery of it all is blatantly represented on screen with a dreary silver sheen over almost every frame. Abrahamson also employs his signature extreme close-ups that blur out everything except the character’s face, forcing viewers to examine every single detail of their expression before them and draw conclusions on what is going through their minds at that moment. It’s the perfect touch, given the psychological nature of the story.

Gleeson, Wilson and Poulter shine in their respective roles: Gleeson is a self-made stoic while Poulter falls on the opposite end of the spectrum as a war-torn drunkard who says whatever he thinks. Wilson’s Caroline operates more subtly, effectively causing the audience to pay closer attention to her side of things.

The performances are perfectly tuned to the mystery genre, despite IMDb’s claims that it is actually horror. Although purposeful in its techniques, “The Little Stranger” rarely grips its audience with fear; it carries a secret up until the final frame, but — intriguing as this inherently is — fails to truly entice the viewer along the way by leaving out the creeping chills and sudden frights that would command their attention; a hungry modern audience is unlikely to put up with this absence of fear.

“The Little Stranger” is truly more of a character study than it is a popcorn thriller.  It is also not as enthralling due to a disappointing lack of, well, actual horror. Though a house casting a psychological spell upon a man is certainly an attractive premise, “The Little Stranger” will inevitably have viewers who are not willing to play by its rules of secrecy. Such viewers are likely to feel underwhelmed as the credits begin to roll.