When Rowan Athale‘s ambitious neo-noir thriller Strange But True opens on the sight of a panicked Nick Robinson running from an unseen threat – with a broken leg, of all things – there’s an immediate sense of intrigue that settles in.
Just what he is running from is gradually revealed when the film takes us back 3 days prior to where Athale and screenwriter Eric Garcia (working off the John Searles novel of the same name) immerse us in a family’s web of secrets and lies that only darken as the story progresses. Robinson’s Phillip Chase has suffered an injury (one that he never seems entirely forthcoming about), something that has forced him to move temporarily back home, much to the chagrin of his tightly-wound mother, Charlene (Amy Ryan). Their exchanges are more bitter wars of insults than standard family pleasantries, and daddy dearest Dr. Richard (Greg Kinnear) having left the nest to marry younger in another state entirely has only added to Charlene’s evident grief.
Just what has shattered the Chase family to breaking point though? Well, that would be the untimely death of eldest son Ronnie (Connor Jessup), the seeming golden boy of the clan, who passed 5 years ago in a car accident that his then-girlfriend Melissa (Margaret Qualley) can’t help but blame herself for. Matters aren’t helped when Melissa shows up on the Chase family doorstep with a baby bump in tow, and when she claims that the deceased Ronnie is the father, Strange But True presents itself as anything other than your standard thriller.
Charlene, obviously and logically, seeks to find a reasonable explanation behind Melissa’s unfathomable pregnancy. Phillip, however, looks beyond to possible otherworldly options, which in turn lends the film an air of curiosity as to what facet of the thriller genre it will dedicate itself to.
The film’s narrative flits between the past and the present, allowing us fragments of the night Ronnie died to gradually earn focus. All the while Athale descends further towards a psychological stress that brings the motives of Melissa’s kindly neighbours (Brian Cox and Blythe Danner) into question; the final act bathes itself with a traditional “gothic horror” dew that feels surprisingly in tune with the rest of the film despite its tonal shift.
Though Strange But True‘s plot strands could all lend themselves to a film on their own accord, the family drama-cum-mystery thriller temperament suits the dark aesthetic Athale is attempting. And whatever flaws audiences could find with the film’s tone, the impeccably committed cast keep the film afloat that you’ll be too gripped to truly care.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Strange But True is screening in select theatres from October 17th 2019.