Is The Stranger a true story? The real-life events the Netflix movie is based on

The lowdown on the new Australian film

a close up of Joel Edgerton in The Stranger which is based on a true story
(Image credit: Netflix)

Crime drama fans are desperate to know if The Stranger is based on a true story, following a mixed response from the public to the Australian movie's recent release on Netflix. 

Written and directed by Thomas M Wright, The Stranger dropped on the US streaming platform on 19 October after premiering at the Cannes Film Festival back in May. After receiving rave reviews from critics, both the movie  and the disturbing story behind it  have been picking up major traction on social media. 

With so many gripping biopics and documentaries available on Netflix in recent months, it's hardly a surprise that folks are asking if The Stranger is a true story or purely fabricated for entertainment. Its release has followed the arrival of a flood of terrifying true-crime shows, including Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story (opens in new tab) which has had many asking about Tracy Edwards now (opens in new tab) - who was the man who helped get Jeffrey Dahmer caught (opens in new tab).

Is The Stranger a true story?

The Stranger is somewhat inspired by the true story and murder investigation of Daniel Morcombe, a 13-year-old boy who went missing in Queensland, Australia, in December 2003. His remains were found in August 2011, eight days after Brett Peter Cowan was charged with his abduction and murder. 

In March 2014, Cowan was sentenced to life imprisonment. The case attracted both national and worldwide attention, with the police investigation into Daniel's disappearance lasting a torturous eight years and culminating in a covert operation known as 'Mr Big.' 

While The Stranger is loosely based on Cowan's crime, Wright has insisted that the film is not a dramatization of Daniel's abduction or murder. All of its characters have been given fictional names and the victim remains off-screen altogether, as part of the producers' wishes to focus more on the police investigation into the crime. Speaking to the Guardian in October 2022, the Australian filmmaker insisted that the film is not about "violence at all." 

"Clearly, the reason for the film is an unnameable act of violence … that embodies the worst of what human animals are capable of. But that is not the subject of the film," he said. 

There is also no attempt to glorify or dissect the murder suspect, Henry Teague, with no scenes recreating Cowan's murder included in the film. 

"The film never attempts to privilege or indulge him [Henry], or try to psychoanalyse his character, because the film doesn’t have any interest in the whys or whats of what he has done, any more than those [real life] investigative detectives and undercover operatives did," Wright adds.

Where is Brett Peter Cowan now? 

Brett Peter Cowan is currently serving a life sentence in an Australian prison, after being found guilty in March 2014 of murdering Daniel, improperly interfering with a corpse, and indecently dealing with a child under the age of 16. He is eligible for parole in 2031, but there's no guarantee he'll be released. 

After he was convicted, Daniel's mother revealed her wishes that he "lived a life of loneliness, unloved for his entire life." His jail experience at the Wolston Correctional Centre has reportedly been just that, with sources telling the Daily Mail that Cowan "was a target from the moment he walked in." As a result, he has been kept in solitary confinement for the majority of his sentence. It's understood that he rarely has visitors, with the exception of his parents coming to see him shortly after he began his sentence. 

The Stranger

Joel Edgerton in a still from Netflix film The Stranger

(Image credit: Netflix)

What was the Morcombe family response's to The Stranger? 

Daniel's parents, Bruce and Denise Morcombe, have pleaded with the public to boycott the film, after condemning it as "selfish cash grab" on a mission to "glorify a horrific incident." 

"If you’ve got any conscience at all, please don’t go and watch this movie," Bruce told Perth’s 6PR radio station in July 2022, adding that the reignited media attention on his son's murder has been "a trigger for all those untidy emotions that you try and suppress day by day." 

The Stranger's producers have said that contacted them to ask if they would like to contribute to the film in its early stages, but they declined to be involved.

Its production company, See Saw Films, also explained that it had deliberately omitted Daniel's name and a depiction of the murder from the movie out of “deepest respect” for the Morcombes. Rather than focus on the victim, The Stranger spotlights the fascinating 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."

Related Netflix features: