At the beginning of the dark, enthralling Netflix thriller The Stranger, the words "based on a true story" flash on the screen. By the end of the movie, viewers will likely want to know more about that real-life tale and how closely the film reflects it.
Read on to find out more, but be warned: Spoilers for The Stranger up ahead.
Basics of The Stranger
The Stranger is a 2022 Australian crime thriller written and directed by Thomas M. Wright. English actor Sean Harris stars as Henry Teague, a man suspected of the abduction and murder of a teenage schoolboy. Australian actor Joel Edgerton, also one of the film's producers, plays Mark Frame, an undercover cop tasked with getting the truth out of Teague years after the crime. That happens via an elaborate police sting operation that recruits Teague into a fake drug-running ring, promising a hefty payout and a place for the jobless drifter to belong.
The movie premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May and had a limited Australian release before it began streaming Oct. 19 on Netflix, where it's spent two weeks on the global top 10 list. The film is a spare, perfectly paced psychological thriller that explores the uneasy friendship between Teague and Frame, as well as the formidable burden and cost of keeping one's true identity a secret, as both men do.
The Stranger was nominated for 11 Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards this year, including best film, best direction, best lead actor, best supporting actor, best supporting actress and best cinematography, a much deserved recognition of the movie's lyrical visuals, which build the moody suspense.
What true story is The Stranger based on?
The Stranger is a fictionalized account of the massive real-life manhunt for the killer of 13-year-old Daniel Morcombe, who was abducted on Queensland's Sunshine Coast in 2003 while on his way to buy Christmas presents for his family at a local shopping mall. He was later murdered. Eight years later, his killer, known pedophile Brett Peter Cowan, was finally arrested and charged.
The film is based on crime reporter Kate Kyriacou's book The Sting: The Undercover Operation That Caught Daniel Morcombe's Killer. The book details the covert scheme that ultimately led to a secretly recorded confession by Cowan, an original person of interest in the high-profile case who had earlier denied any involvement in the boy's disappearance. Days after Cowan confessed to killing the child and was charged -- you can watch a remarkable short video clip of the actual arrest here -- law enforcement finally found the evidence they'd hoped for to push forward a prosecution: Morcombe's remains.
The Stranger changes the names of those involved in the Morcombe case but sticks close to many details -- both Morcombe and his movie counterpart James Liston are the same age and were abducted from a bus stop under a Queensland overpass, for example, and a real-life undercover agent did befriend Cowan and pull him deeper into the pretend crime ring. But the movie focuses more on the sting operation than on the horrific crime itself.
Where is Brett Peter Cowan now?
Cowan, now 53, was sentenced to life in prison in 2014, with the judge describing his crime as "entirely abhorrent." "You have tragically and pointlessly snuffed out a young life," Justice Roslyn Atkinson of Brisbane's Supreme Court said at the time.
In 2016, a fellow inmate at the high-security Wolston Correctional Centre in Wacol threw a bucket of boiling water on Cowan, landing him in the hospital with burns over 15% of his body, including his head, chest and legs. In 2018, another fellow prisoner stabbed the pedophile in the neck with a sharpened toothbrush.
Who was the real Mark Frame?
Edgerton, who plays the character, told the Sydney Morning Herald he's never met or spoken with the real Frame "because we were investigating the truth, taking that truth and telling a fictionalized version of it, which is about protecting everyone involved."
A real undercover cop known as Paul "Fitzy" Fitzsimmons (likely not his actual name) did develop a friendship with Cowan over the course of the sting and testified against him during his trial. Because the real Frame's identity remains a mystery for safety reasons -- it was suppressed during the trial -- we don't know how the investigation impacted him or whether he has a son like Edgerton's character does in The Stranger. That detail adds emotional urgency to Frame's quest to extract a confession from the likely child killer.
What's the reaction to The Stranger been?
The film currently sits at 94% on Rotten Tomatoes. But as we've seen with Dahmer, another true-crime offering on Netflix, such grim retellings can renew trauma for victims. Morcombe's parents Denise and Bruce have strongly criticized The Stranger.
"The movie The Stranger is not supported by the Morcombe family," Denise Morcombe tweeted in July. "Individuals who make money on a heinous crime are parasites … We find the making of the movie morally corrupt and cruel."
The boy's parents rejected the idea that the movie is fiction. "The actual predator looks exactly like Brett Peter Cowan," Bruce Morcombe told Australia's ABC News. "Of course, it's not a fictitious story. Only an idiot would suggest that."
Daniel Morcombe's parents run the Daniel Morcombe Foundation to educate children about staying safe in physical and online environments. The red T-shirt Daniel wore on that December day he went missing has become a symbol of child safety awareness in Australia. People dress in red for an annual National Day of Action for Child Safety, held on the last Friday in October. The event's called Day for Daniel.