Review: ‘The Stranger’ (Quibi), starring Maika Monroe, Dane DeHaan and Avan Jogia

April 30, 2020

by Carla Hay

Dane DeHaan and Maika Monroe in “The Stranger” (Photo courtesy of Quibi)

“The Stranger”

Directed by Veena Sud

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the crime drama “The Stranger” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Latinos and Asians) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman who’s a ride-share driver picks up a very dangerous passenger who stalks her and tries to frame her for murder.

Culture Audience: “The Stranger” will appeal primarily to people who like convoluted crime dramas and don’t expect the story to be very believable.

Maika Monroe and Avan Jogia in “The Stranger” (Photo courtesy of Quibi)

The streaming service Quibi (which launched on April 6, 2020) has set itself apart from its competitors by offering only original content, and each piece of content is 10 minutes or less. Therefore, content that Quibi has labeled a “movie” actually seems more like a limited series, since Quibi will only make the “movie” available in “chapters” that look like episodes.

One of the original movies that Quibi debuted on April 13, 2020,  is “The Stranger,” a thriller about a Los Angeles female ride-share driver being stalked by a mysterious young man who seems intent on framing her for murders that are being committed in the city. Unfortunately for Quibi’s “The Stranger,” it arrives just after the January 2020 premiere of Netflix’s original series “The Stranger,” which is about a stranger who arrives in a suburb and starts exposing scandalous secrets about the residents. It’s one of the reasons why entertainment creators need to come up with more original titles.

Quibi’s “The Stranger” (written and directed by Veena Sud) takes place in a 12-hour period (7 p.m. to 7 a.m.) in the life of a young woman named Clare Johnson (played by Maika Monroe), who works as a ride-share driver for a company called Orbit. One evening, Clare picks up a young male passenger named Charlie E. (played by Dane DeHaan) at a Hollywood Hills mansion for a trip to the airport.

Charlie has only a duffel bag as his luggage, and he immediately asks if he can sit in the front of the car with Clare. Sensing her hesitation, Charlie offers to sit in the back if it would make her more comfortable. Not wanting to alienate this presumably wealthy passenger, Clare says in a friendly manner that it’s no problem for Charlie to sit in the front.

While they’re driving to the airport, Charlie finds out that Clare is so new to Los Angeles that she’s surprised that their trip to the airport will take about 45 minutes. She tells Charlie that she recently moved to L.A. from Kansas to become a screenwriter. In the meantime, Clare has become an Orbit driver to pay the bills.

Charlie quickly becomes flirtatious with Clare. When he sees that she has some mustard on the side of her mouth, he gently wipes some of it off. Clare sheepishly admits that the mustard is from a veggie burger that she had eaten because she didn’t have time for a full dinner. Charlie then says that he doesn’t feel like going to the airport after all, and he would rather have dinner with her instead.

He starts to insist that they have dinner together. Clare then mentions the mansion where Charlie came from as a way to deflect his advances, and he tells her nonchalantly that he doesn’t live there. When she asks him if his parents live there, he tells her no.

The conversation takes a very dark turn when Charlie tells her with an evil smirk that he actually doesn’t know the house owners because he randomly went to house and killed the entire family (a mother, a father and their daughters) who lived there, by shooting and stabbing them. He then shows her the knife that he says he used for the stabbings.

A terrified Clare is now a hostage to this demented person as the car heads down the hills. Because Charlie knows that Clare is an aspiring screenwriter, he demands that Clare tell him a story while she’s driving, and he says he’ll kill her if he doesn’t like the story. Rather than remain a hostage, Clare decides to crash her car in a nearby signpost. Charlie is thrown out of the car by the impact, and Clare speeds off to get help.

Clare calls 911, describes what happened, and she tells the operator that she’s frightened that this deranged passenger will still come after her. Clare stops at a parking lot of a convenience store, because the 911 operator tells her that police officers will meet her there. When the two police officers arrive, they tell her that the occupants of the mansion are two senior citizens who alive and well, that no one reported any disturbances in the area, and that no one fitting Charlie’s description was seen in the area.

Clare, who is shocked by this information, tells the cops that Charlie mentioned having a gun, so she asks them to check the duffel bag that he left in the back of her car. But when the officers inspect the back of the car, they see the duffel bag (which doesn’t have a gun) and a life-sized female blow-up sex doll outside the duffel bag.

That’s the first sign that “The Stranger” is going to have some ridiculous twists. Clare and Charlie were in the front seat the entire time that they were in the car together. How did the doll get outside the duffel bag in the back seat? How did the blow-up doll get inflated? None of that is ever explained in “The Stranger.”

Clare insists that she’s telling the truth and offers to show the cops the text messages that she exchanged with Charlie before she picked him up, as well as the reservation that he made. But when she goes to look for that information on her phone, she finds that every trace of Charlie has mysteriously disappeared from her phone. It never occurs to Clare to have Orbit confirm the record of the reservation and Charlie’s Orbit account. It’s one of many obvious plot holes that “The Stranger” has.

The two police officers who take Clare’s report are very irritated with her because they think she’s playing some kind of prank. They tell Clare that they’re not going to charge her with filing a false police report, but warn her that if they catch her doing anything else that’s illegal, she will be arrested.

A confused and now angry Clare starts to throw away the blow-up doll and the duffel bag (wait, isn’t that evidence?) in a garbage dump at the side of the convenience store. But then, a store employee rushes out and tries to stop Clare.

The employee’s name is Jay, nicknamed JJ (played by Avan Jogia), and he nervously tells Clare that she can’t throw away anything weird there because his boss frequently checks the garbage dump to look for anything suspicious that could get the convenience store in trouble. (Really? Who does that?) Clare explains that she’s had a rough night, so JJ takes pity on her and lets her throw away the blow-up doll and the duffel bag.

But Clare’s night is about to get worse. When she gets home to her apartment, she calls Orbit to report what happened to her and finds out that her account has been suspended, pending an investigation into a customer complaint that Clare pulled a knife on the customer. Clare is furious and tells the person she’s speaking to on the phone that the customer is lying and that he was the one who pulled the knife on her.

Again, it never occurs to Claire to find out the real identity of the customer who filed the complaint, since Orbit has the record of the reservation and the customer’s contact info. But with no police report to back her up, it’s a “he said/she said” situation, and Clare is now out of a job at Orbit.

Clare feeds her small terrier dog Pebbles, who starts to growl, as if someone else is in the apartment. Sure enough, it’s Charlie, who chases a terrified Clare with an apparent intent to kill her. Clare picks up Pebbles, races out of the apartment with the dog, and Clare barely manages to escape in the elevator before the elevator door closes so that Charlie can’t get to her.

After narrowly escaping from Charlie, Clare gets in her car and drives to a local church. Clare calls her mother in the church bathroom and tells her everything that’s happened. Her mother pauses and sounds skeptical. That’s when it’s revealed that Clare has a history of fabricating stories and false accusations. Her mother wonders if Clare is having another one of these episodes.

Is Charlie real or is this all a figment of Clare’s imagination? That answer is eventually revealed, but the rest “The Stranger” is a cat-and-mouse chase between Charlie and Clare. While Clare is alone in the church’s ladies room, someone has plunged a bloody knife into the restroom’s front door.

Like an idiot, Clare takes the knife, only to find out that a street vendor outside the church has just been stabbed to death. She walks out with the knife, in full view of several witnesses, who (not surprisingly) think that Clare is the one who committed the murder. Clare panics and speeds off in her car.

Where does she go next? To the convenience store to get JJ’s help. She tells him what’s been happening to her and that Charlie (whoever he is) has decided to stalk her and ruin her life. JJ is skeptical until something something weird happens while they’re at the store: The security cameras at the store are suddenly showing the inside of JJ’s home.

In order to believe what’s going on in “The Stranger,” you’d have to believe that Charlie is able to predict Clare’s every move and he’s been able to elude the untold number of security cameras that are in a  big city like Los Angeles. And the whole story is based on the shaky, far-fetched premise that a ride-share passenger like Charlie is untraceable, when ride-share companies require identity verification of the passengers making reservations.

There’s also a ludicrous scene where JJ and Clare are driving in JJ’s car somewhere at night. JJ gets stopped by a police officer, the police officer ends up dead, and JJ and Clare come up with a scatter-brained idea to run off to Mexico out of fear of being blamed for the cop’s death. JJ and Clare decide to take a train to El Paso, Texas, because the train will then head to Mexico.

Bizarrely, JJ and Clare are the only passengers on the train, until Charlie shows up and chases them on this empty train and shoots at them. JJ and Clare run away and jump onto the train tracks to escape. Is this a delusional hallucination or is this supposed to be real? All is explained at the end of “The Stranger,” but it’s a far-fetched and poorly conceived explanation.

During the frantic quest “to get to the truth,” Clare holds on to Pebbles like Dorothy holds on to Toto in “The Wizard of Oz.” But “The Stranger” is so badly edited that there are times, such as during a chase scene in the train tunnel, when the dog is nowhere in sight (because Clare dropped the dog somewhere miles away), but then a later scene shows Clare holding the dog again when she wouldn’t have had time to retrieve the dog.

There’s nothing special about any of the acting in “The Stranger.” DeHaan’s Charlie character is a very two-dimensional villain, while Monroe is stuck playing a character who makes so many dumb decisions that it’s hard to feel much sympathy for Clare. Jovia makes the most out of playing JJ, who is the most well-rounded character (he also has the funniest lines), but there’s a plot development involving JJ that is so moronic that it’s a big sign of how the rest of the story goes downhill.

“The Stranger” had an interesting, although not entirely original, concept that is ruined by substandard screenwriting and sloppy editing. It’s a letdown, considering that “The Stranger” writer/director Sud has done better work before. (She was a writer/executive producer for the crime-drama TV series “The Killing” and “Cold Case.”)

How many times have there been mystery thrillers where the plot is about a murder suspect who claims to be innocent? How many crime dramas have there been about a woman being mercilessly stalked? (A “stalker drama” describes about half of all Lifetime movies.) You can add Quibi’s “The Stranger” to the list of these unoriginal ideas, but file this show under the category of “disappointing” and “forgettable.”

Quibi premiered the first three chapters of the 13-chapter “The Stranger” on April 13, 2020.