‘The Drowning’: Film Review

The Drowning - Still 1- Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of Paladin
The story falters, but the dark undertow casts a spell.

At the helm of a feature for the first time in eight years, indie vet Bette Gordon directs Josh Charles, Julia Stiles and Avan Jogia in a thriller based on a British novel.

Bringing her observational knack to the realm of genre formula, New York auteur Bette Gordon tackles matters of crime, guilt and redemption with a solid grasp of character and place in The Drowning. Overcoming the screenplay’s gaping holes in logic is another matter. Like most thrillers, this story of a child psychologist who’s drawn into the net of a vindictive former patient requires a certain suspension of disbelief. Gordon, who has explored lives in the margins in Variety, Luminous Motion and Handsome Harry, doesn’t quite manage to bridge the gaps or make every corner of the story ring true, but with her eye for psychological nuance and three strong lead performances, she lends the material a compelling undertow.

At the generic heart of the drama are the upwardly mobile Seymours, Tom (Josh Charles) and Lauren (Julia Stiles), trying to conceive a child and fully stocked with marital tensions over work-life balance and country-vs.-city allegiances. He’s a psychologist whose specialty is juvenile offenders; she’s a painter, courting the hip young Brooklyn gallerists who could give her the career break she needs. Into their domestic order, if not bliss, crashes Danny Miller (Avan Jogia), a onetime patient of Tom’s who’s recently been released from prison.

Tom doesn’t know who the young man is, though, when he first encounters him, an apparently suicidal jumper at the river near Tom and Lauren’s Connecticut home. Tom plunges into the water to save him, and the life-or-death battle that ensues during the rescue signals what’s to come. Soon Danny, who now goes by the name Ian Wilkinson, is befriending a remarkably trustful Lauren when he isn't menacing Tom. Danny insists that he’s innocent of the murder he was convicted of at age 11, and blames Tom’s court testimony for his sentence.

Though Jogia persuasively switches between charm and bile, the screenplay stacks the deck, leaving no ambiguity concerning Danny’s intentions. Adapting a 2001 novel by Pat Barker, writers Stephen Molton and Frank Pugliese (showrunner for House of Cards) can’t quite pull together the various threads from Danny’s life, among them his violent war-vet father (Robert Clohessy) and a creepy writing teacher (Leo Fitzpatrick).

The greatest mystery in the story is the disturbing over-involvement of Danny’s parole officer, Angela (Tracie Thoms), whose concern for his well being seemingly knows no bounds. She’s the opposite of the glibly cynical prosecutor (John C. McGinley) who tried Danny, and whose only advice to Tom is to get a gun. Angela views him as special, a damaged soul with enormous potential and deserving of careful handling. With far more information than Lauren is privy to, she appears just as deluded in her openness toward Danny. Beyond questions over her emotional state, it’s hard to believe that an employee of the justice system has the time and energy to devote to one client — not to mention discussing his case over drinks with Tom.

The credulity-stretching circumstance that fuels much of the action is Tom’s decision to keep Danny’s identity from his wife. That he would initially toe the legal line on this matter makes sense, especially given Angela’s protective ferocity. But once “Ian” begins insinuating himself into Lauren’s good graces, to continue to withhold the truth is a choice that feels decidedly unhinged. Tom’s guilt takes on a free-floating quality, even as the specific incidents that haunt him are spelled out far too neatly. That literalness takes on a gruesome cast in the case of Danny’s ghosts, with an unfortunate instance of animal cruelty to make an unnecessary point about his troubled past.

But despite the wildly uneven plotting, Gordon’s atmospheric direction in coastal New London propels the drama, as does her sensitivity to what remains unspoken between people. That everyone in the film is drastically off-balance may just be the point — even the seemingly sturdy Lauren, who moves forward into new opportunities and new friendships while Tom is drawn into the past, both Danny’s and his own. Where everyone ends up rings surprisingly true in this helping-professions nightmare, where help is as uncertain a proposition as anything else.

Production companies: The Film Community, Electric Entertainment, Sun Culture Entertainment, Making Horror Limited, More Than Life Productions, White Windsor
Distributor: Paladin
Cast: Josh Charles, Julia Stiles, Avan Jogia, Tracie Thoms, Leo Fitzpatrick, Robert Clohessy, John C. McGinley, Deborah Hedwall, Marceline Hugo, Jasper Newell, Jessica Ellison, Sam Lilja
Director: Bette Gordon
Screenwriters: Stephen Molton, Frank Pugliese, based on the novel
Border Crossing by Pat Barker
Producers: Jamin O’Brien, Daniel Blanc, Radium Cheung
Executive producers: Elizabeth Kling, Stephen Molton, Alvin Chai, Alex Dong, Pang Ho-Cheung, Subi Lang, Joe Pope
Director of photography: Radium Cheung
Production designer: Rachel Myers
Costume designer: Stacey Berman
Editor: John David Allen

Composer: Anton Sanko
Casting: Allison Estrin

99 minutes