Jordan Peele’s Get Out is a brilliant, successful movie that left a comet-like tail blazing across the art and business of film. It’s inspired plenty of opportunistic copycats — but it’s also inspired a generation of marginalized filmmakers, especially Black filmmakers, to use thrillers and horror movies as vehicles for the themes that matter most to them. Just as important: It persuaded studios and production companies that enabling those filmmakers isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s smart business.
This time last year, Sundance Film Festival was overwhelmed with stories like these: smart, furious movies like Master and Nanny that sometimes chafed against their genre frameworks, but in interesting ways. Back in 2020, Netflix produced Remi Weekes’ His House, one of the best British horror films of recent years, a chilling haunted-house movie that explores, with great specificity, the experience of Sudanese asylum-seekers clinging to the precarious, crumbling foothold they’ve been offered in British life.
Netflix’s latest Brit thriller, The Strays, initially feels like a similar prospect. If anything, it hews even closer to Get Out, as it drops the supernatural allegory and horror imagery in favor of something more psychologically real, more disturbingly close to the surface of society. But that’s even more difficult to execute tonally — and writer-director Nathaniel Martello-White, making his feature debut, doesn’t pull it off — at least, not until the movie’s final moments.
Ashley Madekwe plays Neve, a woman living a polished existence in an affluent part of rural England, where large midcentury homes sprawl tastefully among the trees, the towns are full of cute tea shops, and life revolves around expensive private education. It’s like a more monied, less idealistic and quirky version of Sex Education’s fantasy valley. Also, everyone in this world, apart from Neve and her two children, is white.
Neve, the deputy head teacher of a posh school, is accomplished but uptight. She keeps scratching at the immaculate straight black wigs she wears, and won’t show anyone her natural hair, even her husband. We know what this means. We would probably know what it meant even if Martello-White hadn’t, in a prologue, shown us the same character living many years earlier on a poor London housing estate, going by the name Cheryl, and walking out on her miserable life and abusive partner.
This prologue is one of several blunt structural choices that sucks all the tension out of the film. Instead of feeling its way toward Neve/Cheryl’s trauma, the film bakes it in from the start. Consequently, when a young Black man and woman show up and begin to disturb Neve’s idyllic existence, it isn’t hard to figure out where they’re from, who they might be, and what they signify.
With his shot choices, Martello-White labors to give these two “shadowy figures” (the logline’s questionable words, not mine) a menacing air of mystery that’s neither earned nor appropriate to the role they do play in the drama. The effect the characters do have is entirely down to the performers: Jorden Myrie as the young man, and Bukky Bakray as the woman. Myrie simmers with masculine repressed rage, while Bakray — who was so good in 2020’s heartbreaking inner-city drama Rocks — has a touching, innocent quality that she can suddenly shatter with shocking bitterness, without either mode seeming false.
The script unconvincingly makes these characters out as demons before rewinding to tell their story in a twist that’s not only easy to predict, but that breaks the film’s moral consistency. Their initial characterization as a threat may be intended to evoke how Neve sees them, but it’s bad-faith filmmaking, and deeply unconvincing. More bizarre still is the way the genre mechanics of the film can’t let go of this conception of Myrie and Bakray as creepy home invaders bringing a dark reckoning, even after we’ve learned their much simpler and sadder truth. It’s too late — they’re forced to keep cosplaying as the bad guys.
Martello-White seems to want The Strays to be a film about the fault lines in British Black identity, and in class divisions, too. He builds the story around the question of why and how someone would remake their life in a different image, and what it costs to do so. These are questions that Peele, an unerring sharpshooter, targeted more vividly in 2019’s Us. Rebecca Hall honed in on the same ideas with a laser focus in 2021’s devastating Passing, also streaming on Netflix.
But by contrast, Martello-White can’t locate his target. He can’t answer his own questions, or explain why he’s turned a sad personal story into a psychological thriller. Instead, he makes his characters take the fall. The film’s one saving grace is the devastating simplicity of its ending, when Cheryl/Neve takes these motiveless matters into her hands in a way that’s both unexpected and makes perfect sense. Who could blame her?
The Strays is streaming on Netflix now.