Director / co-writer Nate Strayer’s Outlier is an abduction thriller that, despite being well-shot and occasionally harrowing, doesn’t feel like it approaches its subject matter with a deft enough touch to feel additive to the cultural moment with regard to stories about abuse and recovery.
That isn’t to say that films about women fighting back against their tormentors need be navel-gazing; neither Revenge nor I Spit on Your Grave, the ne plus ultra of the genre, certainly isn’t. Outlier, which tells the story of Olivia (Jessica Denton) escaping one abusive relationship only to find herself in a new, more insidious one, doesn’t deliver much new to the table via shock or revelation.
It feels like we’re at a juncture where cinematic depictions of men gaslighting and abusing women should lead to something more meaningful than ambiguous triumph. “Is this a story that needs to be told once more?” That should be the first question at the start of producing a thriller where the primary mechanic for tension will be whether a man is going to drug a heroine again.
Thomas (Thomas Cheslek) initially comes across as a savior when he pulls Olivia from a public spat between her and her abusive boyfriend. Thomas has a lot of secrets that don’t amount to much besides an odd device to remove him from being a straightforward abuser. Cut those revelations out and it’s basically the same story: Olivia has to escape from him while he lies to her, and worse, to make her stay. Script-wise, it’s unfortunate that the film introduces Olivia with one abuser only to throw her into the hands of another. There are, of course, plot details that “explain” that, but it still boils down her character into a woman whose serial victimization is her defining feature. It uses the depiction of spousal abuse with a little sci-fi touch. It’s a shallow mixture.
More problematic is the fact that red flags start waving quickly after Olivia returns with Thomas to his home. He’s immediately controlling and overbearing. There are scenes where he lies to her, but as an audience we never believe his side of the story. He’s not remotely insidious or charismatic enough, and her lack of a relationship with him gives us little on which to hang. It’s fight-or-flight from the start of her relationship with him. There’s little that feels real about her situation compared to the much more tragic and upsetting story she relays, in pieces, about her and the boyfriend she runs from at the start.
I don’t mean to seem like I’m writing off Strayer’s film because of its premise although I’ve grown pretty exhausted with this genre, which seems to be a go-to for smaller productions looking to mine the built-in two-person conflict of “will he hit her again / when will she hit back?” The overall plot here is a little more complex than that but ultimately, and unfortunately, boils down to that dynamic. Everything extra — like Thomas’s mysterious phone calls — is periphery.
Still, Strayer and company make a gorgeous-looking film, especially considering they had limited funds and manpower when shooting during the 2020 COVID lockdown. Denton and Cheslek deliver strong perfromances. Strayer knows how to stage scenes between the two of them to create tension and uses the confined spaces available to them to great effect. Although the story never quite feels like it connects, the team should be proud of what it accomplished in regard to a visceral experience. The cold, dream-like chase sequences through the forest are upsetting.
I would say Outlier is a mixed bag, with talent on both sides of the camera telling a variation on a well-trodden story without anything new to add in an age where depictions of abuse should ideally be held to a higher threshold than in the past. For many of the crew, this is the first feature-length film. It’s hard to say they failed to make something coherent and compelling, which is sometimes all you can ask for.