Fantastic Fest: Strange Darling – a Thriller filled with Surprises

True crime, murder porn (as some call it), and serial killers, like train wrecks, mesmerize many. People seem fascinated by podcasts, shows like Dateline and Cold Case Files, and movies depicting the likes of Ted Bundy and Son of Sam and all those who came before and after. In line with public appeal, Strange Darling falls within this expansive genre. Writer/director JT Mollner debuted his film at this year’s Fantastic Fest 2023, and audiences love it.

The film opens in a scroll touting the escapades of a prolific serial murderer who wreaked havoc over several states starting in 2018. To keep things simple and not include spoilers, let’s say that Strange Darling plays out with heart-pounding intensity because Mollner’s script is razor-sharp and meticulously methodical, made even more powerful and thrilling by the incredible performances from Willa Fitzgerald and Kyle Gallner. They absolutely kill (literally and figuratively) in their roles.

In the initial sequence, a nearly nude woman, with mascara streaking her face and blood oozing from her head, starts viewers on a ride with so many twists it is nearly impossible to keep up, but we do. In bits, the plot plays out non-linearly but still manages to put viewers in its grip and never let go. A terrifying car chase transpires in another scene, creating an unforgettable white-knuckle experience. Once in his grip, Molliner NEVER lets go.

His direction and taut script keep things tight and intimate, providing an utterly insane up-close experience in a fierce cat-and-mouse story that moves from one harrowing experience to another. To say more about the plot would be remiss for those who want to see it and trust that all fans of crime and thriller stories will want to. Fitzgerald certainly plays her part to perfection – one of the best performances of the Fest. Gallner, too, adds to the film’s crazy ride, and the pair bears the film with passion, carrying the weight of every exciting scene. Veterans Ed Begley Jr. and Barbara Hershey add subtle excitement in some of the most startling moments offered by Mollner’s nearly perfect tale.

It’s impossible to reveal anything key in the script without potentially ruining the experience. By playing on what we know about gender roles, when no means no, and on sexual violence, and by building up and breaking down normal assumptions, Molliner creates a chilling thriller with timely themes. Strange Darling deserves 5 stars. Enter a screening ready to be engrossed and surprised.

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