Published Jun 11, 2018The Toronto True Crime Festival has done an excellent job at programming films that, in various ways, break established conventions of what true crime films are expected to be. From the bizarre story laid out in the otherwise by-the-books doc Abducted in Plain Sight to My Name is Myeisha, a surrealist hip-hop musical about a black teenager's last moments on Earth before she's shot by police, these films are anything but typical of the genre.
The Stranger, a 2017 Danish documentary about a young single mom named Amanda who slowly begins to realize her boyfriend Caspar is not who he appears to be, is no exception. Told entirely via re-enactments, The Stranger is notable because these re-enactments star Amanda herself, as well as her friends and family (excepting, for reasons that become obvious, Caspar, who is played by an actor). We watch the story unfold right alongside Amanda, who speaks to the camera to tell us how she felt in that moment, and what, through hindsight, she wishes she had known before everything began spiralling out of control.
Amanda, who lives a satisfying yet lonely life with her young daughter and dog, has resigned herself to singledom when, out of the blue, a woman messages her on Facebook. This woman, by coincidence, shares the same last name as Amanda, and she is reaching out to inquire if there's any relation. When it's established that there isn't, the woman then mentions that she has a single male cousin who she thinks Amanda would get along well with. Soon the cousin, Caspar, starts messaging Amanda, and a sweet online courtship ensues.
Eventually Caspar reveals a secret he was hesitant to share: that he's incredibly wealthy, the heir to a large real estate fortune, and his family members are wary that Amanda only wants to swindle his money. But family be damned — Amanda and Caspar meet up in person, sparks fly, and soon, they move in together. But as the months go by and Caspar starts to reveal more of himself to her, Amanda begins to suspect that some, or maybe all, of his life story may be a fabrication.
Amanda takes us through the stages of her relationship with Caspar — the strange first connection, their eventual meetup (where she notes that he doesn't quite look the same as his photos, but is charming and romantic all the same), to meeting each others' friends and family and moving in together. Amanda, who has an expressive, melancholy face that makes it difficult not to feel for her, explains her gradually mounting discomfort, the odd ticks in Caspar's personality and speech that she knew were strange, but didn't know how to articulate at the time.
As Caspar, Esben Dalgaard Andersen is adept at portraying the kind of man that isn't overtly weird, but occasionally says or does things that provoke discomfort, like arguing with his mother on the phone in front of Amanda, or enthusiastically suggesting her best friend become their personal chauffeur. It's the kinds of little things that add up in a relationship, things that women especially are conditioned to either put up with or ignore — except in this case, these little things add up to something very, very wrong.
If there's a problem with The Stranger, it's pacing. It takes awhile to reveal what Caspar's deal is, as this is a film more concerned with the journey than the destination. While this is a fine decision in and of itself — it's a beautifully shot film, staging Caspar and Amanda's relationship like a memory than something we're watching happen in real time — the holes in Caspar's story don't manifest until nearly an hour in, and by this time we're impatient for things to get a move on.
But while it's not a huge shocker, being right there with Amanda when she discovers the truth is a gut punch. The Stranger does a lot of unorthodox things with the concept of a true crime documentary, and while it doesn't nail every single beat, it's certainly a compelling, moving story about a lonely woman who was taken advantage of by a cowardly man.
(Made in Copenhagen)