Stranger in the Woods: Exploring Victimhood
Director Adam Newacheck and writer Holly Kenney explore the consequences of victim blaming and shaming in the psychological thriller, Stranger in the Woods. It reminds the audiences that friends can add to the problem when they do not believe nor heed a victim’s story. The Newacheck brothers known for their work in comedy (Workaholics, Murder Mystery) have demonstrated their ability to branch into the thriller genre.
Shot with an intimate hand-held feel and small cast of six, the audience practically lives with Olivia (Holly Kenney) and her group of friends - Sam (Brendin Brown), Clayton (T.A. Spencer), Theresa (Paris Nicole), Liam (Devon Stewart) - as they head off into the woods for a lake-side vacation. This vacation occurs after Olivia had nearly drowned to death with a slit wrist in her bathtub after attending a funeral for her late fiance. Her friends suspect that Olivia killed herself when she believes that someone attacked her.
When the friends arrive at the cabin, Sam’s brother, the cabin host, Clayton (T.A. Spencer) is a strange, conservative .gun-wielder, and when Olivia’s therapy dog, Koda, goes missing, the crew start to suspect that Clayton is responsible. Olivia progressively becomes more paranoid as her friends start to believe she is the one losing it and they cannot accept that she was ever actually attacked.
Olivia is a refreshing protagonist. She is not a damsel in distress nor an intangible badass. She is a resourceful human thinking ahead for her protection. Even if it doesn’t always work in her favor, it’s nice to see her plotting and fighting, and Kenney’s portrayal of her is sincere.
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Nicole as Theresa plays the complex role of the friend who thinks she knows best. Her character walks the tightrope of salience. Though she pushes hard for Olivia to accept that no one attacked her, folks still may side with her genuine care toward Olivia. But they could easily side just as well with T.A. Spencer after Olivia’s paranoia directly affects his well-being. Olivia’s potential love interests - Brandon and Sam, played by Antczak and Brown, are similarly towing the line of helpful.
But where does help become harm? That is the question this film asks and answers. The answer? Control. At various points in this film, people close to Olivia try to control instead of listen as a means to help. For Olivia it spells damaging consequences that lead her into the hands of a maniac.
Though there were occasional jarring editing choices in post, the cinematography was beautiful and intense. The art direction with the strange taxidermy foreshadowed the danger to occur. Much like the hunted stuffed animals, the characters themselves would be preyed upon with hunting gear. With taut dramatic tension, nuanced performances, and meaningful themes, this was an exciting, thoughtful watch.