Welcome the Stranger is the kind of movie that wants people into thinking it is of greater importance than it is. I think the word for that is “pretentious,” something too lightly thrown around in this internet age of film criticism but one that I feel fits here. It has ambitions that it can’t hope to realize and is ultimately more confusing and vapid than poignant or enlightening. It’s going to leave most viewers too puzzled and bored to care about figuring out what it wants to say, if it wants to say anything at all.
It’s (primarily) a three-person film, with two of them taking up the most screen time and the third only showing up in its second half. Alice (Abbey Lee) as decided to visit her estranged brother, Ethan (Caleb Landry Jones), who lives in a mansion she has no idea how he affords. They’ve not kept in touch for years and clearly have some sort of issues stemming from their past. They’re cordial but there’s a tension between them. Her stay was to last one night but winds up being longer.
Alice has visions. She sees a yellow light from the sky and a woman. When a woman, Misty (Riley Keough), eventually shows up, she thinks it’s the same person as in her visions. It’s Ethan’s girlfriend. She’s unconvinced of this, insisting that Misty has more nefarious, and maybe supernatural, goals in mind. And by this point we’re already something like three quarters of the way into the movie. That may be spoiling for some people but, with a movie whose plot is so thin, whose build is so slow and lacking in events, that’s just how it has to be.
Most of the film sees Alice and Ethan talking. Not about anything in particular and especially not about anything that’s of value to us, the viewer. They don’t talk like people; they speak as if they’re trying so desperately to dance around the current subject so as to intrigue a potential eavesdropper. It’s unnatural. It’s stilted. It’s awkward. And it makes for a poor viewing experience. They might have mental issues; Alice, in particular, seems to believe things that are not real. But the dialogue stems not from those but from writer-director Justin Kelly, who knows we’re watching them and wants to make his movie seem more mysterious and profound than it is.
Welcome the Stranger winds up only functioning semi-well as a mood piece, the type where the slow build, the tracking shots through this mansion, and the mysterious characters all make it feel like it’s something worth taking seriously. The plot does nothing to work in its favor, the characters have little to them and even less that’s worth noting. It does build atmosphere. It just does nothing with it.
Some movies are far more frustrating than they are anything else, and Welcome the Stranger is that type of movie. It wants to be about … something, I think, but it’s anyone’s guess what that is. It’s got a brother-sister relationship that’s potentially intriguing, and it posits the idea that there may be other worlds/dimensions/something—or maybe it’s just the imagination of the mentally ill. It never comes full circle with any of its ideas. It instead peppers its dialogue with a bunch of stilted nothingness, tries to be mysterious for reasons that don’t make sense within the framework of these lives, and is far more confusing than profound. Maybe there’s something there, but it’s hidden behind an impenetrable barrier of pretentiousness.
Conclusion: Welcome the Stranger can’t get out of its own way.
Recommendation: Unless you want to spend hours looking for something that I don’t think is there, you’re much better off skipping Welcome the Stranger.