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A Slick But Superficial Refugee Thriller

The international scope and grueling human cost of the global refugee crisis lends itself to contemporary epic filmmaking of a particularly sober stripe, as seen mostly recently in Agnieszka Holland’s “Green Border” and Matteo Garrone’s Oscar-nominated “Io Capitano.” Shorn of their ripped-from-the-headlines urgency, such stories of humans crossing vast distances and facing hostile odds in pursuit of a better life are as old as time itself. A muscular, assured debut feature from U.S. producer-turned-director Brandt Andersen, “The Strangers’ Case” stresses the sprawling scale of the situation with a chaptered structure that pivots between multiple involved parties in the refugee’s journey, from warmongers to traffickers to rescuers to the displaced victims themselves.

That wide span, however, prevents a particularly penetrating look at any individual experience of the crisis. Brandt draws his characters in broad, flat strokes that serve the architecture of the narrative — and its cumulative, practically inevitable emotional wallop — without yielding much intimate human insight. “The Strangers’ Case” is expanded from the director’s Oscar-shortlisted 2020 short “Refugee,” which mapped out one of the story arcs depicted here, and indeed felt like a trailer of sorts for more expansive treatment. But this multi-stranded construction feels ultimately like an omnibus of equivalent shorts spliced together, integrated via the film’s most questionable device: Each builds to a high-stakes cliffhanger answered by the next. At a certain point, this cultivation of mortal suspense sits uneasily with the film’s reflection of a real-world humanitarian emergency: There’s more interest in these characters’ inner lives and struggles than there is in teasing out whether they live or die.

Still, Andersen knows how to grip an audience, and his debut is assembled with enough melodramatic pull and robust technical prowess to hook viewers that might shy away from a harder, rawer work like “Green Border” — which “The Strangers’ Case,” with its similar subject and story framework, unavoidably recalls. A relative lack of marquee names in international cast (with Omar Sy, playing a callous French refugee smuggler, the most prominent player here) perhaps represents an obstacle to potential distributors for this Jordan-funded production, but Andersen’s polished mainstream sensibility should see it through to theaters globally.

A Chicago-set prologue — established with a swooping camera glide along the Chicago River, taking in a glossy symbol of unwelcoming immigrant policy in Trump Tower — introduces Amira (Yasmine Al Massri), a Syrian doctor and mother now working in a city hospital. It’s a far calmer work environment than that depicted in the next segment, titled “The Doctor,” which flashes back to Amira’s exhausting rounds in an Aleppo emergency room during the 2016 bombings. Indiscriminately operating on soldiers from both sides of the conflict, as the war-torn city shudders and crumbles outside, she’s content to put herself in harm’s way — but remains fiercely protective of her teenage daughter Rasha (Massa Daoud).

When their family home is razed in another air strike — leaving numerous relatives dead — Amira and Rasha flee for the border, stowed in the trunk of a car so as to escape the notice of Assad officials, though the question of their survival at a tense checkpoint is left in limbo as the film cuts to its next chapter. In “The Soldier,” focus shifts to Mustafa (Yahya Mahayni, giving the film’s most powerfully contained performance), a stoic, obedient officer in the Syrian Army who is beginning to chafe against the barbaric orders of his superiors, and is chastened by the shame of his pacifist father.

Mustafa’s moral wavering brings him to a do-or-die standoff against his vicious commander — which means it’s time for the narrative to jump once more, this time to Sy as “The Smuggler.” Stationed in Izmir, Turkey, Sy’s character Marwan is a hard-hearted opportunist, relieving Syrian refugees who have made it that far of thousands of dollars for a spot one of his small, ill-equipped boats to Greece. “They make it, they don’t, it all pays the same,” he says with a shrug to one of his collaborators. Yet his cruel exploitation of others’ vulnerability masks his own dreams of emigration with his adoring, cherubic young son.

That portrait of committed fatherhood in turbulent circumstances that is somewhat schematically echoed in the film’s next two chapters. “The Poet” follows Fathi (Ziad Bakri), a Syrian writer and family man attempting to shepherd his wife and chldren across the Aegean, while “The Captain” is centered on Stavros (Constantine Markoulakis), a valiant Greek coast guard putting his life on the line to bring the boatloads safely to shore, as his son frets from the sidelines. As the film’s climax triangulates these men’s stories, it becomes clear tragedy will strike at least one family — Andersen’s somewhat inelegant script trades in dialogue pregnant with foreboding. (When a child utters, “Please don’t leave me again, Papa,” it’s safe to say the omens are not good.)

The heft and sweep of the filmmaking work to distract us from these creaks and joins. Scenes of wartime destruction in Aleppo are realized with impressive authenticity, courtesy of juddering sound work and Julie Berghoff’s textured production design, while a shivery, waterborne finale, staged under relentless lashings of rain, attains a genuine air of heart-in-mouth peril. Regardless of the film’s contrivances, it’s hard not to share in the characters’ anger and desperation. “The Strangers’ Case” is titled for a prescient, Shakespeare-written speech from the play “Sir Thomas More,” in defence of those displaced from their country and barred from others: “Would you be pleased to find a nation of such barbarous temper that, breaking out in hideous violence, would not afford you an abode on earth?” Brandt’s debut hasn’t quite the Bard’s poetry, but the plaintive conscience is present and correct.

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