May 19, 2024

Serial-killer movies are a dime a dozen these days, with the true-crime industrial complex exploiting the ill-deeds sprees of increasingly obscure murderers to keep up with audience demand. Anyone wary of the genre might balk at the idea of “Strange Darling,” a cat-and-mouse drama about the tail end of a murder spree, but to do so would be to miss out on an exemplar of the form. Writer-director JT Mollner flips the script on this tired genre, crafting the cleverest thriller of its kind in a while with a mighty assist from a pair of killer performances by co-leads Willa Fitzgerald and Kyle Gallner. Best experienced with as little foreknowledge as possible, “Strange Darling” demands a bit of patience, but it also rewards it.

It opens with a title card that reads like a badge of honor — “shot entirely on 35mm film” — followed by a text crawl informing us that the killer was active throughout the Interior West before a final hurrah in the forests of Oregon, where the film takes place. Despite being set just a few years ago, “Strange Darling” is in many ways a throwback. Gallner’s mustache and yellow-tinted sunglasses evince a distinctly ’70s vibe, as do the grainy visuals and frequent appearance of “Love Hurts” on the soundtrack. Even with these vintage touches, Mollner shows himself to be more forward-thinking than most of his genre peers. He’s clearly a student of the game, one who studied his forebears’ lessons with adroitness to better prepare himself to put his own mark on them.

Backstory out of the way, the film then moves on to the main action, in a manner of speaking. Divided into six chapters and beginning in medias res with the third, “Strange Darling” opts for a nonlinear approach that initially runs the risk of coming across as a Tarantino-lite affectation before gradually (and then suddenly) revealing itself as a sly means of concealing a genuinely clever twist. “Strange Darling” really does benefit from knowing only what little its longline divulges — “a day in the twisted love life of a serial killer” — but know that it opens with an injured woman known only as the Lady (Fitzgerald) running for her life from a man called the Demon (Gallner) before drifting further and further from audience expectations with each out-of-sequence chapter.

Gallner, so impressive in this summer’s “The Passenger,” is on a roll with his second exceptional performance in a row. He frequently vacillates between menacing and charming in the span of a single scene, with the imposing physical presence of a snake slowly uncoiling as it prepares to strike. He’s met his match in Fitzgerald, who displays an innate talent for gnarled characterization that she never got to explore on MTV’s small-screen adaptation of “Scream.” (Though largely a two-hander, the film features Ed Begley Jr. and Barbara Hershey as two older hippies who have the misfortune of getting caught in the Lady and the Demon’s wake.) The two of them are entangled whether or not they want to be, two halves of the same oxidizing coin.

There’s beauty in that decay, some of which comes from an unexpected source. Giovanni Ribisi has been acting since he was a child, but it seems what he really wants to do is direct — photography, that is. The first-time cinematographer proves as adept behind the camera as he is in front of it, bringing out the color and texture of all the blood, handcuffs and gunpowder this story entails in vivid detail. It’s an unexpected addition to his repertoire, but a welcome one at that.

“Do you have any idea the risks a woman like me takes whenever she decides to have a little fun?” the Lady asks in a pivotal scene showing us how she and her counterpart first came to know each other. That she even broaches the subject is an early sign that the film is taking a more thoughtful approach to gender dynamics, predatory relationships and dangerous men than most of its genre peers. As the narrative skips back and forth in time, Mollner invites audiences to adjust their first impressions of the dynamic between the Lady and the Demon. Like a lot of toxic relationships, theirs begins with promise before quickly deteriorating. “Strange Darling,” meanwhile, is something like the opposite: It feels destined to become a cult classic that grows more satisfying with each successive viewing.

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