From writer and director Nena Eskridge comes a no-budget indie thriller about the lengths a young woman, Jennifer (Gabrielle Stone), will go to in order to secure the life and family she believes is hers. It opens with Jennifer escaping from a van and the man inside. There’s no explanation as to what Jennifer was doing in the van, who the man is, or whether she was predator or prey, but we know she’s handy with a knife at the very least. Her escape leads Jennifer to a train and a seat next to Marvin (Andrew Sensenig), a widowed and retired insurance man.
Marvin’s kindness to her peaks her interest and in no time at all Jennifer’s moving in on him. That’s only the start of her scheme to ‘settle for a while’. Inveigling her way into the life of local bar runner Greg (Dan McGlaughlin), the sociopathic Jennifer makes plans to build a new life for herself, regardless of who gets in her way, and leave her past behind for at least a while. As is often the way, of course, Jennifer might be through with her past but her past is not through with her. Add in that her domestic bliss might not actually be blissful at all and you’re in no doubt things will not end well for Jennifer.
The pacing is awkward, with some scenes almost abruptly changing tone and direction. Characters are generally so broadly stretched it severely strains credulity they would allow situations (often manufactured by Jennifer) to continue. If we’re being kind, it’s arguable this is all part of Eskridge’s intent, reflecting the fractured psyche of Jennifer and the blunt way in which she processes the world around her. Either way, they’re all pretty insufferable and so what happens to them isn’t compelling.
Much of the events that transpire verge into soap opera territory. Importantly, as a thriller Stray is never particularly thrilling. In fact, much of the bulk of the running time is spent on relationship drama that, despite our knowledge of how dangerous Jennifer could be, doesn’t involve or engage. As we noted, the characters are almost completely unlikable or uninteresting. Jennifer’s scheme centres around manipulating circumstance as opposed to a grand plan and, as such, it comes closer to success as a character study of a disturbed young woman’s sad life trajectory than anything else.
Gabrielle Stone does the best job here, wrestling with a shallow main character and working hard to invest her with some depth. Stone manages to squeeze some empathy into her portrayal but this comes too late in the film to really help.
It’s not badly made, as such, and Eskridge knows her way around using a camera, but Stray's too long and simply not as gripping or captivating as a thriller needs to be. There are hints within of a more interesting film that could have been, but despite Gabrielle Stone giving it a strong showing (the rating below resting mostly on her shoulders), Stray sadly never convinces.
STRAY / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: NENA ESKRIDGE / STARRING: GABRIELLE STONE, ANDREW SENSENIG, SAMANTHA FAIRFIELD WALSH, SEAN PATRICK FOLSTER, DAN MCGLAUGHLIN / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW