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Ex-Quibi Thriller Works Better in Feature Form

Ex-Quibi Thriller Works Better in Feature Form

Remember Quibi? The short-lived streaming service-turned-punchline, which vastly overestimated how many people felt compelled to watch bite-sized shows and movies on their phones, seems to have done one thing right before being folded into the Roku Channel: allowing creators to retain ownership of their work after a two-year exclusivity window. Not content to let her 13-part thriller series “The Stranger” disappear along with the platform on which it debuted, “The Killing” creator Veena Sud recut the project into a feature film alongside editor Philip Fowler. Gone are the 8-minute episodes named after the hour in which they take place (beginning with 7 p.m. and ending at 7 a.m.), replaced by a 98-minute Hulu feature that shows no sign of having been overhauled.

Six days after moving to Los Angeles with her dog Pebbles, rideshare driver Clare (Maika Monroe) picks up Carl E. (Dane DeHaan) from a mansion that doesn’t belong to him. It’s odd (albeit not overtly sinister) from the moment he asks to sit up front rather than in the backseat, noticing that she isn’t a local based on her reaction to how long it’ll take to reach LAX. (She’s actually from Wamego, Kansas, as was a certain ruby-slipper-wearing Dorothy; “Wizard of Oz” parallels recur throughout.)

After charming her for a few minutes, he informs her that he murdered the occupants of the pickup spot and seems poised to do the same to her until she deliberately crashes her car and runs away; as fate would have it, alas, this is only the beginning of a long night of cat and mouse in which he’s largely absent. A skilled hacker with an encyclopedic knowledge of the algorithms that hum in the background of our daily lives, his presence is more virtual than physical.

Spare a thought for Monroe, who can’t help getting herself into exactly this kind of situation. After her breakthrough performance in “It Follows,” she established herself as her generation’s preeminent scream queen with equally riveting turns in the likes of “The Guest” and “Watcher”; she’ll next be seen in Neon’s “Longlegs” alongside Nicolas Cage and is reprising her best-known role in the cleverly titled “They Follow.” Well suited to this kind of role without feeling limited by it, Monroe excels at playing damsels who invert their distress and rescue themselves. Often seen in closeup on the verge of tears, she embodies a sympathetic vulnerability that can’t entirely mask the tenacity emerging from within.

“I’m not making this up,” Clare tells her mother on the phone after being dismissed by the police and suspended by the rideshare company. “This isn’t like last time.” This naturally leads us to wonder whether she is, in fact, making it up, as her pursuer — whose name just so happens to be an anagram of hers — relentlessly follows her with the single-minded intensity of, well, the supernatural entity from “It Follows.” The camera does too, with Paul Yee’s fluid cinematography lending the proceedings an immediacy befitting the life-or-death stakes. “The Stranger” takes place over 12 hours but has the feeling of realtime.

What it doesn’t have is an inventive narrative, with few scenes matching the level of dread created by that inside-the-car opening: the slow realization that something is amiss, the fight-or-flight panic that results from being in a confined space with a confessed murderer who seems to know everything about you. That premise has no shortage of potential, and while the film doesn’t squander it, it doesn’t maximize it either, to the extent that the behind-the-scenes story (about the project’s post-Quibi fate) winds up being more distinctive than the actual plot. Monroe is an adept driver as usual — were this a rideshare app, she’d certainly get five stars — but she’s behind the wheel of a too-familiar vehicle.

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