When Strangers Appear (2001) Movie Review

The Scott Reynolds film, “When Strangers Appear,” is a good example of an independent feature with a limited budget that relies on a tight and taut screenplay and a good cast to carry the day. Unfortunately, after an hour and 20 minutes of twists and turns, tremendous acting by all involved, and enough surprises for multiple films, writer/director Scott Reynolds throws in a ridiculous finale that destroys all the film had invested in up to that point. Why, oh why, Scott?

“When Strangers Appear” stars Radha Mitchell as Beth, a lonely but spunky woman in a small Oregon town who runs a diner at one side of town by day and a hotel at the other side by night. Beth lives a solitary existence, as revealed by her daily treks back and forth between her jobs, occupations that have imprisoned her. Things look up when Jack (Barry Watson) stumbles into Beth’s diner, suffering from a stabbing wound and facial scars. Being that she’s the spunky type, Beth finds herself getting involved with helping Jack elude a group of men led by the handsome Peter (Josh Lucas), who arrives looking for Jack. Or at least that’s what Jack says. Peter, though, has another story…

The phrase “tight and taut” really describes Scott Reynolds’ script. The film moves at a breezy pace and the introduction of various characters are done with great timing. Reynolds directs with skill, managing the suspenseful scenes very well, all the while allowing for doubts in the viewer’s mind concerning the motivations of every single character (even Beth). For instance, because Jack and Peter have different stories about their encounter and Jack’s wound, leaving us to share Beth’s inability to really trust in one man over the other. At the same time, we wonder why Beth is risking so much to help Jack, and why a woman is accusing her of being a homewrecker. As the movie speeds toward the end of its first hour, “When Strangers Appear” is an excellent mystery with intriguing characters.

Of course, that doesn’t last. Unfortunately. What’s most disappointing about “When Strangers Appear” is that its story and characters up to this point have been grounded in reality. Why writer/director Scott Reynolds would throw all that away (essentially dismissing the gritty tension of the last hour and a half) for an outrageous, over-the-top ending that takes place in a cascade of gasoline geyser, I can’t possibly fathom. It should also be said that only in movies could characters duke it out underneath a shower of gasoline without being blinded in the first few seconds. Oh, and one character has been stabbed, and is still battling in the gasoline shower!

The ludicrous ending aside, “When Strangers Appear” is blessed with an incredible cast. Radha Mitchell, last seen in “Pitch Black”, shows much more range here, probably because she has better material. While the film does purport to take place in Oregon, USA (but is probably shot in the New Zealand countryside), I am unsure why Mitchell tries for an American accent. I only mention this because her accent, while good at times, is not always successful. It’s somewhat disconcerting as she slips back and forth between accents, depending on the intensity of the scenes.

The rest of the cast provides a good mystery around Mitchell’s Beth. American golden boy Barry Watson (of TV’s “7th Heaven”) is actually quite good as the desperate Jack, whose character seems perpetually on the edge of turning on Beth — and us. Josh Lucas, as Jack’s pursuer (or is that victim?) also keeps us guessing about his motivations until writer Scott Reynolds decides to reveal everything. There’s also an exceptional performance by Kevin Anderson as a scumbag cop in Beth’s small town. Anderson just chews up the scenery as the lazy and despicable cop who may or may not have raped Beth in the past — or is Beth making all that up?

“When Strangers Appear” is a great film until its cartoonish ending. I can only guess why Reynolds did it. He probably thought he needed to end the film with a “big bang.” Unfortunately in this case, a big bang is precisely what the film didn’t need. After all, why bother setting the whole thing up as a gritty thriller only to throw it all away for an unbelievable brawl that defies all common sense?

Sometimes less is more. “When Strangers Appear” definitely proves that notion. If only it had stayed less, and not tried for more, this would be a great film instead of just a decent one.

Scott Reynolds (director) / Scott Reynolds (screenplay)
CAST: Radha Mitchell …. Beth
Barry Watson …. Jack Barrett
Josh Lucas …. Peter
Kevin Anderson …. Bryce

Buy When Strangers Appear on DVD