Why Netflix's The Stranger Doesn't Include The Real Life Victim's Name

It's important to remember the "true" part of true crime. Behind the endless cavalcade of Netflix-driven docu-dramas depicting murders, kidnappings, rapes, etc., are real families and real people undergoing real trauma. Those individuals can't simply pause a show, clutch their chest, and say, "How horrible," before grabbing a soda from the fridge and flopping back onto the couch. We'd hope that during a show's or movie's production, efforts are made across the board to ensure that everything is accurately and respectfully portrayed.

Nonetheless, dramatizations can tear open ancient scars and make wounds fresh. This is exactly what happened to the parents of a victim whose 2003 death is at the heart of a new 2022 Netflix movie, "The Stranger," starring Sean Harris and Joel Edgerton. "Individuals who make money on a heinous crime are parasites," the mother of the deceased said on Twitter. She called the movie "callously disrespectful" and "morally corrupt and cruel," ending, "Shame on you."

"The Stranger" never names its victim, however. The Guardian says, "If viewers went in cold, it's unlikely they would connect the film to real-life events." The film focuses on the eight-year-long undercover operation that led to the victim's killer being caught, tried, and finally found guilty and sentenced in 2014. On 9News, writer and director Thomas Wright said that the film "tells the story of the unknown police professionals who committed years of their lives and their mental and physical health to resolve this case, and others like it."

Fiction vs. reality

By all accounts, "The Stranger" is a thoughtful, well-made film. It's "hypnotic" and full of "lurking dread," with "strong, subtle" performances (per Decider) portraying characters who feel doomed to walk an "Australian purgatory" forever (per Collider). Sean Harris plays Brett Peter Cowan, the killer of the 13-year-old victim who was abducted from a bus stop on the Sunshine Coast on December 7, 2003. Joel Edgerton plays the undercover policeman who got the killer to open up to him and confess his crime after eight years of undercover work. 

Speaking to Deadline, director and writer Thomas Wright said that "The Stranger" "was a very difficult film to make" and "a frightening film to take on." Per 9News, a producer also said, "Out of our deepest respect for the family, the name of the victim is never mentioned in the film and the film does not depict any details of the murder," adding, "Nor is the family represented in the film in any way." They say that they also notified the family of the victim before the movie was made. And yet, the parents of the deceased say they were "absolutely blindsided" when news of the movie came out (per 7News) and that they learned about it when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. On 9News, the father of the victim asked, "Why are these people in it? They need to take a good hard look at themselves. Are they in it for their careers, or for blood money?"

Crime, punishment, and promotion

In 2011, the parents of the victim watched the actual footage of Queensland Police apprehending killer Brett Cowan, as 7News explains; the deceased's father called it "haunting." They also allowed the footage to be released to 7News for broadcast purposes. "The Stranger," though, upsets them because they don't want "the promotion of the movie" to use their child's name. Director and writer Thomas Wright says that he was aware of this from day one, however, which is why the film omits all information about the crime. "I couldn't presume to know anything of the experience of that family," he told Variety. "But I could see that there was a story about empathy and making meaning in the wake of violence, not violence itself." 

Cowan, who was eventually given a life sentence in 2014 with a 20-year non-parole period (per The Guardian), was one of a number of suspects assigned undercover officers. He had a history of child molestation dating back to his teen years and had previously been jailed for sex crimes against boys in 1987 and 1993, as The Guardian says. As eventually came to light, he stumbled across the victim by chance while undergoing induction into a criminal enterprise. He pulled over to the bus stop where the victim was waiting, offered to give him a lift, then took him to a secluded spot with the intention of molesting him. The victim resisted, and Cowan killed him before disposing of the body. 

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, please contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.