When Strangers Appear (February 4/02)
Though When Strangers Appear received no North American theatrical distribution, it was clearly intended to be seen on a big screen (the widescreen framing is a dead giveaway). And while it's nowhere near as good as its thematically similar cousin Breakdown, When Strangers Appear is a surprisingly engaging and involving little thriller.
Radha Mitchell (Pitch Black) stars as the lone employee at a middle-of-nowhere diner (it used to be a bustling joint, she explains, before they shut down the highway that ran next to it) who finds herself under attack after harboring a supposedly innocent victim. Barry Watson (TV's Seventh Heaven) plays the victim, a young man who's apparently being pursued by a gang of ruthless punks after a road rage incident. Mitchell must now determine whether or not Watson is telling the truth - because if he isn't, then she just might be in more danger than she originally thought…
When Strangers Appear initially seems as though it's going to be one of those claustrophobic, Wait Until Dark-esque thrillers - with the first half hour or so taking place entirely within the confines of Mitchell's diner. But after a little while - and after enough doubt has been planted in Mitchell's mind that perhaps Watson isn't as innocent as he claims to be - the film shifts in tone, turning into more of a cat and mouse pursuit than anything else. On the one hand, there's Watson - seemingly injured from the road rage incident, and alternating between cowering in fear and lashing out defensively at anyone that tries to contain him; but on the other hand, there's the trio of supposed surfers that may or may not be after him, led by a charismatic leader that Mitchell finds herself drawn to.
As the woman who's used to doing things her way, Mitchell is surprisingly effective. That she proves to be a formidable opponent against men double her size should come as no surprise to those who've seen Pitch Black, a science fiction/action flick in which she kicked butt with the best of them. Here, she's initially someone that doesn't want to get involved, happy enough to get by on a day-to-day basis. But circumstances demand that she either help out or kick ass - and not surprisingly, she winds up doing a combination of both.
The structure of When Strangers Appear is initially somewhat jarring, though it's easy enough to get used to. Writer/director Scott Reynolds has fashioned a storyline that is, more often than not, not entirely linear. He'll fade out from one scene and plop us smack dab in the middle of something entirely different, preventing us from discovering what happened during that period until later on. I suppose this allows for mystery and suspense, but really, plenty of other similar flicks have been able to create such atmospheres without omitting large chunks of the story.
When you get right down to it, though, there are so few films like this that it's hard to complain when one this effective comes along.