The Strays is a 2023 British horror film starring Ashley Madekwe as Neve/Cheryl, a biracial well off woman with a sordid and mysterious past. Neve has a loving husband with a successful financial career, two well behaved and academically sound children, and is an upstanding and respected member of her community. However, her pristine and proper life is thrown into disarray with the arrival of two people from her past. Throughout the 100 minute runtime of the movie, Neve slowly descends into further and further madness amid suspicion and tension brought upon by the visitors to her new life and world resulting in a truly terrifying and chilling conclusion.
This is by no means a bad or badly made film. There is obvious skill in composition and cinematography. The score and sound add to the underlying building tension. Madekwe’s performance through the contrasts in her character is impressive and engaging. The supporting cast are no slouches either, particularly the performances by the children actors. Yet, for all its positives, The Strays commits one of the worst sins of modern cinema: it is just kind of boring.
I know what the movie is going for. It is attempting to build up tension through Neve’s descent into madness and paranoia, but it never quite feels fully real and ominous. The ‘antagonists’ presented in the film are Neve’s abandoned children from her past who have come to make their mother pay for her past sins of abandonment and neglect. The issue with these two is they are an amalgamation of too many tropes. It is like the director or screenplay writer was unsure of who or what they wanted these two to be.
They are somehow both very obviously mentally and emotionally damaged to the point that at times the girl, Abigail, demonstrates extreme intellectual development issues, but are still able to fully plan and execute their revenge scheme that involves manipulating and charming various people and systems. Also, apparently, obviously segregated English communities do not have any form of security, alarm systems, background checks, or any other forms of ensuring tranquility and/or oppressing minorities. Which does not feel accurate. Furthermore, Marvin and Abigail’s, Neve’s abandoned children, actions are understandable, to an extent, but make their ability to pull off their machinations even more questionable. They are erratic and emotional and are easily discovered, so how on Earth did they survive this long much less pull off any deception?
All in all, this film is messy, uneven, and does not quite fully work, but the final twenty minutes of the movie manage to salvage and save this movie. It is only in this conclusion that you truly feel terror and tension that was missing in most of the movie. Even the ending does not really make logical sense, but the emotions and acting engage the audience completely for the buy in. And full credit to the director and/or writer for that ending. The final act of the film is genuinely harrowing and makes the rest of the film better in context. I won’t spoil it because you need to see the film for the payoff to really hit, but the final scene of the film before credits roll is honestly one of the most remarkable and disturbing images because of the story that preceded it.
So, yeah, a pretty bland film that is trying to be too many things instead of just being a unique well told story, but it manages a truly intriguing and shocking conclusion. Cannot say if that makes the film worth watching as that would be more of a personal taste decision, but it is under two hours and has production value, so perhaps more of a lazy weekend film than something to go find and watch immediately.