Outlier (2021)

A terrified woman runs in the forest, before falling over as she looks back and hitting her head. A man chops timber outdoors for firewood, intercut with shots of the same man plugging his smartphone into a massive mainframe computer. Nate Strayer’s Outlier, which he co-wrote with Jona Doug, begins with this confusion of images, shown out of chronological order, whose significance will only gradually be demystified – but what is clear from the outset is that this is a film which will play with slasher tropes while juxtaposing the primal wildness of nature and the modern advances of technology. Here, even the digital realm can be made to service primitive impulses.

That fugitive woman, it will turn out, is Olivia (Jessica Denton), who even before she finds herself on the run in the woods, is already frightened and trapped. Living with her controlling, abusive boyfriend James (Logan Fleisher), she is meek, passive and apologetic, in constant fear of provoking his anger and violence. The computer-savvy woodchopper is Thomas (Thomas Cheslek), who intervenes when he sees James aggressively manhandling Olivia at a petrol station, and takes the distraught woman away. Himself a childhood victim of abuse in a violent home, softly spoken Thomas is determined to help Olivia. “I just wanna run away,” Olivia will tell him, in words that recall the first image of her in the film – and so Thomas offers her refuge at his remote lakeside cabin, reassuring her that “Heroes can exist.”

Yet as this gentle, solicitous man starts to exhibit ever more controlling behaviours of his own, and as he speaks at length into a phone headset about Olivia whenever he supposes that she is out of earshot (and when confronted, suggests implausibly that he was only talking to himself), Olivia begins to suspect that she may have got out of the frying pan into the fire, and wonders what exactly Thomas, in all his paternal sanctimony, has in store for her. This time though, Olivia is not going to allow herself to be gaslit and dominated once again without putting up a fight. Yet perversely, the more resistance Olivia shows to the authority of her imposing host, the more she might be giving Thomas exactly what he wants.

Olivia (Jessica Denton) behind bars

The word ‘outlier’ can refer to a person who lives at the edge of an area, or to an anomalous value in a dataset – and these meanings, respectively characterising Thomas and Olivia, give the film’s title its meaning. Strayer’s debut feature is itself something of an outller to traditional methods of filmmaking. For it was shot on a very low budget, under Covid lockdown conditions, mostly with just a crew of two and a cast of two – and it exploits that sense of close domestic confinement, recently made familiar to us all, to amplify its own themes of abuse’s suffocating, inescapable entrapment. Of course, under quarantine more than ever, we all did our business and lived our lives online – and Outlier also finds ways to generate anxiety from this shift of our data into the virtual arena, where a predatory stalker can easily remain unseen and anonymous.

When Olivia asks Thomas what he does for a living, he tells her that he writes educational software. This is important for two reasons: it establishes both his fluency with code and algorithms, and his interest in education. He may stalk, and abduct, and imprison, and far worse, but in his mind Olivia is a pupil whom he is bettering with his unconventional rescue programme. Thomas is, after his fashion, a liberal do-gooder, like the protagonist in Pascal Laugier’s The Tall Man (2012) – and the intentions behind his intervention are benign. Accordingly, Outlier is concerned not just with the prison house of abuse, but also with the paradox of what emergence from such a trap might mean: a reversal of power dynamics that can turn the abused into the abuser, the hunted into the hunter, and the victim into the aggressor. In this way, as Olivia becomes more assertive and finally reassumes control of her own destiny, the film maintains an ambivalence towards this transformation, celebrating it while also suggesting that both Thomas and even James have themselves been through a similar process to become the bad guys who they are. Maybe heroes can exist, but they can also very readily turn into villains – and Olivia, for all her triumphant emancipation, is going down the exact same road that Thomas once travelled.

strap: Nate Strayer’s abduction thriller sees an abused woman liberating herself by transforming into what she most fears.

© Anton Bitel