'Wetlands': Film Review

Gusmano Cesaretti
Stronger on style than substance.
9/15/2017

Adwale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Heather Graham, Jennifer Ehle and Christopher McDonald star in Emanuele Della Valle's neo-noir thriller set in New Jersey.

Director Emanuele Della Valle lays neo-noir atmosphere on thickly in his debut feature set in the desolate New Jersey coastal towns south of Atlantic City. The tale of a troubled cop (is there any other kind?) attempting to get his life back together, the film boasts an unfortunate timeliness given that one plot element involves a menacing hurricane heading toward the Jersey shore. But that’s not enough to prevent the rest of it from feeling terribly familiar. Despite a strong performance by the charismatic Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (HBO’s Oz, ABC’s Lost) in a welcome leading role, Wetlands mostly comes up dry.

The physically imposing actor plays Babel Johnson, known as “Babs,” a former Philadelphia detective with a checkered past and addiction issues. Newly clean and sober, he’s been reassigned to the Jersey shore area, where he hopes to repair his relationship with his estranged ex-wife Savannah (Heather Graham) and teen daughter Amy (Celeste O’Connor).

Unfortunately for him, Savannah is now romantically involved with a woman, known as “Surfer Girl” (Reyna de Courcy), who’s turned to crime to make enough money to move to Hawaii and open a surfboard business. And Amy is so resentful of her father’s past behavior that when he attempts to give her an ice-cream cone, she angrily throws it on the ground.

Babs’ professional life isn’t much better. His new partner Paddy (Christopher McDonald) is a garrulous hard drinker with a serious gambling problem, and he himself becomes a suspect in an ongoing murder investigation. On the bright side, when Paddy’s wife Kate (Jennifer Ehle), a local news anchor desperate to maintain her looks, throws herself at Babs, he doesn’t bother to resist.

Like so many noir films,Wetland incorporates voiceover narration by one of the central characters and is stronger on mood than plot. Della Valle’s screenplay features the sort of artificial-sounding, hard-boiled dialogue uttered by characters who know they’re in a movie, and it’s woefully thin on storytelling coherence.   

 Still, Akinnuoye-Agbaje looks great, and suitably haunted, walking on deserted beaches clad in a trench coat, and his co-stars prove equally compelling. Ehle provides subtle shadings that make her character far more interesting than expected; McDonald expertly delivers his unique brand of sleazy exuberance; and Graham, wearing tinted aviator glasses throughout, displays an arresting edginess that somehow makes her even sexier, if such a thing is possible. Thanks to the actors’ fine work, Wetlands becomes a noir in the best Hollywood tradition. You can savor the acting and mood even as you let the story itself blow over you.

Production: Wetlands Productions
Distributor: Abramorama
Cast: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Heather Graham, Jennifer Ehle, Christopher McDonald, Reyna De Courcy
Director/screenwriter: Emanuele Della Valle
Producer: Fred C. Caruso
Director of photography: Barry Markowitz
Production designer: Lucio Seixas
Editor: Ray Hubley
Composer: Trevor Gureckis
Casting: Bess Fifer

98 min.

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