Mr. Big

The content below is from episode #152 of the Who’d A Thunk It? Podcast

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Joel Edgerton (left) plays an undercover cop and Sean Harris a suspected child killer in gripping Netflix drama The Stranger. 

  • This week I recommend you watch The Stranger on Netflix


********SPOILERS AHEAD****************

  • The Real Crime
    • Daniel James Morcombe (19 December 1989 – 7 December 2003) was an Australian boy who was abducted from the Sunshine CoastQueensland on 7 December 2003 when he was 13 years old.
      • Morcombe was abducted from an unofficial bus stop under the Kiel Mountain Road overpass in the Woombye district of the Sunshine Coast approximately 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) north of the Big Pineapple on Sunday, 7 December 2003. Witnesses reported seeing Morcombe at approximately 2:10 pm under the overpass. Morcombe planned to catch the 1:35 pm bus to the Sunshine Plaza Shopping Centre for a haircut and to buy Christmas presents, but the bus had broken down. When a replacement bus eventually arrived, it did not stop, because it was behind schedule and the stop was unofficial; the driver radioed the depot for another bus to go and pick up Morcombe. The driver and other witnesses later reported seeing two men near Morcombe. When the second bus arrived three minutes later, Morcombe and the men were gone.
        • Morcombe’s disappearance was one of the most extensively investigated crimes in Queensland’s history. By 12 December 2008 rewards of A$250,000 from the Government and A$750,000 donated privately had been offered.
    • Eight years later, Brett Peter Cowan (born 18 September 1969), a former Sunshine Coast resident, was charged with Morcombe’s murder. In the same month, DNA tests confirmed bones in the Glass House Mountains were Morcombe’s. On 13 March 2014, Cowan was found guilty of the murder,and was sentenced to life imprisonment for indecently dealing with a child and interference with a corpse.
    • Brett Peter Cowan(born 18 September 1969) is an Australian murderer and child rapist.
      • The 13-year-old Daniel Morcombe’s abduction led to an eight-year investigation involving various suspects.
      • Cowan was living in the town of Beerwah around the time of Morcombe’s disappearance. He was approached by police because of his criminal history and his proximity to the area in which Morcombe was last seen. Just days after the disappearance, however, he denied his involvement. A former police officer believed Cowan to be suspect from just one encounter: he stated that “Look, if he’s not good for that, he’s good for something. I left with the distinct impression of guilt.” A police interview with Cowan was conducted in July 2005 in the Gold Coast. Detective Tracey Barnes, who handled the interview, asked Cowan if he would admit being involved and he responded with “probably not”
      • As a result of these investigations Cowan led under cover police to a potential burial site. He was charged with the murder that same month and Morcombe’s remains were discovered days later on 17 August. Cowan was sentenced to life imprisonment, (being eligible for parole in 2031) on 13 March 2014 in a trial that attracted worldwide attention. Cowan had two previous convictions for sexually abusing children, the earliest dating back to 1987
  • The Movie
    • In 2022, an Australian crime thriller movie based on the events surrounding Daniel Morcombe’s murder and more so the investigation into his murderer was released titled The Stranger. It was written and directed by Thomas M. Wright.
    • In the movie “The Stranger,” actor Sean Harris stars as Henry Teague (the criminal based on Brett Peter Cowan) and 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.
    • The movie is mostly about the investigation and operation to get Teague/Cowan to confess to the murder of the boy.
    • Australian police create a VERY elaborate sting with multiple undercover cops acting as a fake organized criminal enterprise. The undercover cop character Mark Frame is the one that works the most with Teague/Cowan.
    • If the audience is unfamiliar with the Daniel Morcombe case (as most American viewers likely will be unfamiliar) than the movie has a big twist in the end.
    • It starts out with Teague being recruited by Mark Frame into the organized criminal group. They go on multiple jobs together to gain Teague/Cowan’s trust.
    • As the audience watches they realize something is a bit off in more ways than one. First, you realize that Mark Frame isn’t who he says he is and that gradually comes out as he is an undercover cop… but you aren’t sure why, you think maybe he is a rat agains the organized crime group.
      • At the same time you realize the character you’ve been watching from the very beginning, the Teague/Cowan Character is creepy as hell and has a disturbing past he wants to keep secret from the organized crime group he is trying to become a part of.
    • Then of course you realize Mark Frame isn’t trying to rat out the organization, he is trying to get Teague/Cowan to confess.
    • As Mark Frame and Teague/Cowan go on fake crime runs together it becomes increasingly creepy.

Just to try and help you the reader keep things straight: Joel Edgerton (left) plays Mark Frame, the undercover cop. And Sean Harris (right) plays the Teague character based on the real-life child molester&murderer Brett Peter Cowan.

  • The movie the Stranger 2022 was first released at the Cannes Film Festival and had a short run in the theaters in Australia before it was released on Netflix in October of 2022. It is still on Netflix in the US and was on the Top 10 list of movies for weeks.
    • Leslie Katz from CNet writes:
      • 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. 
    • It won some recognition andwas 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.    
    • The movie wasn’t created just from news headlines and research. There was a book The Sting: The Undercover Operation That Caught Daniel Morcombe’s Killer written by a crime reporter by the name Kate Kyriacou. The book goes into great detail about the undercover operation the Queensland police pulled off to get Cowan to confess.
    • What sets this story apart from other investigation stories is the elaborate procedure.
      • A covert police operation that had been used in Canada drew the attention of an investigator involved in Morcombe’s case. The procedure, known as Mr. Big, consists of police officers who pose as members of a corrupt criminal gang to gain the confidence of the alleged suspect, enlisting the suspect’s participation in an escalating series of often elaborate fictional crimes, particularly theft, prostitution and the drug trade. Once the suspect’s trust has been gained, the police persuade the suspect to confess to the earlier, real crime. In this case, an undercover police officer, posing as a crime boss known as “Paul Fitzsimmons” or “Fitzy”, befriended Cowan on a flight to Perth in April 2011. Fitzsimmons gained the trust of Cowan and the two became friends. Due to the absence of any physical evidence, a confession by Cowan was needed. Over the following months, Cowan’s gang of friends initiated him through an array of fake criminal scenarios. Cowan was issued a subpoena for his alibi in Morcombe’s case; however, he denied any involvement. In August 2011, at an interview at the Perth Hyatt Hotel, an undercover officer gained Cowan’s trust, saying he “only wanted to help Cowan”, and that Cowan could trust him with anything. Cowan subsequently disclosed his involvement in Morcombe’s abduction and the confession was captured on video.
    • While the movie The Stranger does change the names of the characters involved, it is very close to the real story.
    • Both Daniel MorCombe and the fictional boy James Liston from the movie were abducted under an overpass in Queensland Australia at a bus stop. Like the movie, there was a huge undercover police operation and one undercover officer did “befriend” the abductor/murderer.
  • After the crime, investigation, and trial, Brett Peter Cowan is rotting in prison.
    • He is currently 53 years old sentenced to life in prision in 2014. His defense was that his confession was false and was given under false pretenses. But he was convicted and during sentencing Justice Roslyn Atkinson of Brisbane Supreme Court described his crime as “entirely abhorrent,” stating “you have tragically and pointlessly snuffed out a young life.”
    • It is a fairly well-known fact that prison systems don’t take kindly to the type of crime that Cowan committed.
      • In 2016 inside the high-security section of Wolston Correctional Centre, a fellow inmate of Cowan’s threw a bucket of boiling water on him burning 15% of his body, mostly on the head, chest, and legs.
      • In 2018 he was stabbed in the neck with a makeshift shive carved out of a toothbrush.
        • These are extremely violent acts that in this particular situation probably don’t garner much sympathy for the victim.
  • The undercover cop from the real story is faceless and only ever given a fake name for obvious reasons.
    • Paul “Fitzy” Fitzsimmons is the name given to the real-life undercover cop, but don’t be surprised to find that is a fake name. The identity of the undercover cop who did most of the groundwork on the Mr. Big investigation procedure is kept under lock and key for his safety.
    • The actor Joel Edgerton said he did not even try to meet the real-life counterpart to his fictional Mark Frame character. He 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.”
    • There is no way to confirm if the real undercover cop on the case has a son like the fictional version does. That may have been an added detail to get the audience to feel more tension while viewing the film.


Joel Edgerton standing on a dirt road in a forest
In The Stranger on Netflix, Joel Edgerton plays Mark Frame, an undercover cop who finds himself getting close to someone who may have committed an unspeakable crime.  Ian Routledge/Netflix
  • The movie seems to be a hit with most people.
    • It currently has a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes which is a damn-good score.
    • But not all enjoy the movie. When a real-life crime of this gruesome of nature comes out, the victims seldom give anything but scorn.
    • Daneil Morcombe’s parents Denise and Bruce strongly disapprove. Denise tweeted “The movie The Stranger is not supported by the Morcombe family. Individuals who make money on a heinous crime are parasites … We find the making of the movie morally corrupt and cruel.”
    • The parents have said on the news “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.
Crowd dresses in red in honor of Daniel Morcombe, who wore red the day he went missing as a 13-year-old
Members of the Sunshine Coast community wear red as a symbol of child safety awareness on this year’s Day for Daniel. Daniel Morcombe Foundation