Stray is an indie crime (and psychological) thriller that thankfully doesn’t feel the same as every other low-budget pot-boiler out there. Thanks in part to a strong central performance, but also due to writer-director Nena Eskridge’s strong sense of style, the movie works as a twisted tale of murder and deceit which, despite descending into incoherency and implausibility during the third act, ended up leaving me with a nice aftertaste. Yes, it does look like it cost $60,000 to make (because it did), but despite its financial limitations (or maybe because of them), it boasts a very distinct and compelling look.
Stray follows Jennifer (Gabrielle Stone), a murderous young woman who arrives at the small town of Chestnut Hill. She wants to build a new life for herself there, and seems to be willing to do pretty much everything to do so, including lying and killing. She even meets a handsome bartender, Greg (Dan McGlaughlin), who she initially befriends, and intends to keep for herself (even though he has a fiancee named Sarah, played by Samantha Fairfield Walsh). It’s not every day a movie asks its audience to follow the life of such a slimy, despicable character, but Eskirdge makes it all work.
The fact that Gabrielle Stone gives a really intense and realistic performance certainly helps. She portrays Jennifer as a cold-blooded, vengeful and clearly insane woman, the kind of person who doesn’t mind meddling in peoples’ lives, destroying relationships and killing the innocent, in order to obtain what she wants. A lesser thespian would’ve portrayed the character as an over-the-top caricature, but fortunately, that’s not the case here. Yes, one doesn’t precisely empathise with Jennifer, but Eskridge and company do manage to make one feel sad for her, even when she’s committing all kinds of bloody and morally reprehensible deeds. That’s quite the feat, to be honest.
Maybe it helps that, despite the picture’s minimalistic and symbolic style, one does get the sense that the screenplay is trying to develop Jennifer as a human being; a crazy manipulative one, for sure, but still. The fact that Stray takes its time to show us exactly how she slides in a small community means we get to spend quite a bit of time with her, getting to know her motivations and her personality. She’s not a simple psychopath; she wants to have a family and a normal life, and one gets the sense that she’s been running away from something for a number of years. Her previous family, a revengeful entity, the police? It could be none of those or all of the above; the film never quite makes it clear.
In that sense, apart from being a chilling suspense picture, Stray is also quite the tragedy, featuring someone who sees herself as misunderstood, even lost. She a little bit like a child; every time someone disagrees with her or doesn’t give her what she wants (in this case, a normal life, or even a traditional marriage), she throws a fit and leaves, the only difference being that her outbursts usually involve murder. That’s why widower Martin Brightman (Andrew Sensenig) ends up dead after politely declining Jennifer’s offer of marriage. After all, they’d known each other only for twenty-four hours or less.
But those kinds of details don’t seem to bother Jennifer. She doesn’t operate on the same level as any other normal person; she’s not looking for relationships because she craves the warmth of another human being, or because she’s capable of feeling love. She’s only looking for self-fulfilment, for the “American Dream”, and she doesn’t really care with whom she manages to achieve this. It could be the aforementioned widower (who was much older than her, by the way) or a soon-to-be-married bartender. That doesn’t matter; what does matter is that she must get what she wants, even if she has to end up killing a whole town of innocent people.
Even though violence seems to be an important part of Jennifer’s life, Eskridge doesn’t seem to be interested in showing it in all its glory. A cynical reviewer might think this has to do more with budget limitations, but I choose to believe it was more of a stylistic decision. Yes, violence can be frightening and intense when being show explicitly on screen, but it can also be equally chilling if it’s only implied. The implication of violence, along with the movie’s slow —but determined— pace gives it a palpable sense of dread, and makes the viewer scared of what Jennifer might do next. After all, at least in this case, what one pictures in one’s head based on what can be heard and implied, is much worse than what Eskridge and company could conjure up with the help of special effects and make-up.
Now, back to the aforementioned third act, I wouldn’t say it ruins the film, but it definitely does not help. I don’t want to spoil Stray for those who plan on watching it, so suffice it to say that anything too related to the events involving a newborn baby and Jennifer’s depression never really work. They seem tacked-on, and only serve to lengthen the runtime, instead of building any more suspense, or further developing the movie’s main character. Additionally, since Stray is a micro-budget indie picture, some of the acting is either a little stiff or too melodramatic, which means a couple of the more intense moments never quite connect with the viewer.
Nevertheless, it must be said that Stray was quite the unexpected pleasure for me. It’s an interesting and surprisingly deep character study, a psychological thriller that treats its psychopathic and bloodthirsty protagonist as both a tragic figure and a scary lunatic. Yes, it can be quite slow at times —especially when it focuses on details that deepen some aspects of Jennifer’s character, but not much of the plot—, and some of the acting is iffy, but overall, it’s worth a watch, especially if you’re looking for something deceptively simple and unique. I look forward to watching more films from newcomer Nena Eskridge.