You could probably excuse Strangers writer/director Erik Lehmann if he simply rested on his already successful career as an in-demand freelance 3-D artist who has worked on such films as Star Trek Into Darkness, Guardians of the Galaxy, Iron Man 3, and Cloud Atlas along with the highly anticipated Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Fortunately for all of us, Lehmann doesn't rest on his more mainstream success and remains committed to his burgeoning career as a filmmaker with his latest short film, Strangers, proving to be a compelling psychological thriller that is as substantial as it is stylish. The film centers around a man, Donovan Price (Michel Schuler), who awakens in his darkened apartment the morning after having publicly humiliated his date, Iris (Barbara Meier). He is barricaded in his apartment. He is unable to leave.
He is not alone.
Confronted by four masked strangers with unknown intentions, Donovan's nightmare has just begun.
With an idea that was birthed out of one of the filmmaker's own nightmares, Strangers may at first seem like perhaps Lehmann ripped a few pages out of the Saw guidebook but I can assure you he did not. While Lehmann's visual prowess is on display, Strangers works largely on the strength of Lehmann's ability to sell his characters and construct a simple yet layered plot that involves each of the film's images and each of the strangers confronting Donovan having a purpose for doing so.
The film starts off uncomfortably primarily because Michel Schuler establishes Donovan as more than a little bit of an ass quite early in the film, like the first five seconds, and Barbara Meier's early presence is one of assumed vulnerability.
The emotional investment is there right from the start.
Even with advance knowledge of the basic plot surrounding Strangers, the build-up is anxiety inducing and one can never be quite sure exactly where Lehmann is going to take everything.
That's a good thing.
Accompanied by stellar music by Timm-Eric Heiland, Strangers benefits greatly from Lehmann's own top notch costume design, especially for the involved masks, to an entire visual effects team that takes what could have been a predictable idea and really brings it to life.
If there's a minor quibble with Strangers, it's in the early facial shots in the film's opening minutes. Regardless of where Lehmann is taking the film, whether these are hints or diversions, they feel a touch too obvious and, especially in the case of the waiter, almost distractingly so.
These are minor quibbles for an otherwise compelling and involving film that is a strong indicator of greater things to come from Lehmann. He's clearly paid attention as his own career has grown and that attention has paid off with a film that is both intellectually satisfying and appealing to all the senses. For more information on the film, visit the film's website linked to in the credits to the left of this review.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic