Film Review: The Drowning

Josh Charles and Julia Stiles star in a stiff psychological thriller beset by serious lapses in logic.
Specialty Releases

Dive in to save a man from drowning, and you risk being dragged down with him. Pulling off the rescue without getting pulled under requires focused strength, resolve and awareness—traits held in short supply by Dr. Tom Seymour (Josh Charles), the addled psychiatrist at the center of director Bette Gordon’s amply atmospheric but frustrating suspense drama The Drowning.

Adapted from British author Pat Barker’s 2001 novel Border Crossing—with the book’s action transplanted from England to New London, Connecticut—the thriller starts out promisingly, conveying a wealth of backstory, mood and character in the moments just before and following Tom’s split-second decision to plunge into deep, chilly waters to pluck an apparently suicidal young man from the river. Tom’s wife, Lauren (Julia Stiles), at his side when they witness the kid tip face-first into the drink, considers her man a hero for his daring act of selflessness.

Tom doesn’t let Lauren know when he discovers soon afterward that the jumper, going by the name of Ian Wilkinson, is in fact a former patient named Danny (Avan Jogia). Recently released from prison, Danny has spent nearly half of his young life incarcerated for killing an elderly woman when he was just a boy. Tom doesn’t clue Lauren in that this “Ian” is a convicted killer, even after Danny pops up in the doctor’s office bearing an awful grudge, since it was largely Tom’s testimony that put the delinquent away for the crime. At the time, the physical evidence of Danny’s guilt may have been inconclusive, but based on their intense psychiatric sessions, seen in flashback (with We Need to Talk about Kevin’s Jasper Newell as young Danny), Tom came to a conclusion that sealed Danny’s fate.

Yet the film, scripted by Stephen Molton and Frank Pugliese, contrives long beyond the point of ridiculousness to have Tom keep Lauren in the dark about his and Danny’s substantial shared past. Sure, the doctor feels guilty for his part in derailing a young life; Danny still maintains his innocence. But when Tom comes home to find Danny charming his wife over cool beverages, then finally it’s time for true confessions, right? Apparently, it isn’t. Does he sit her down for a heart-to-heart after Danny’s oddly doting parole officer, Angela (Tracie Thoms), entreats him again and again to dive in and save Danny from himself?

No, he runs with the story to his lawyer buddy, Teddy (John C. McGinley, the only one having any fun with this moroseness), the prosecutor who tried Danny’s case. Conveniently dim for an expert in his field, Tom discloses nothing to his wife, even as Danny clearly poses a danger to their household. Instead, the frazzled doc downs shots with Angela, and trades war stories with Teddy about tough luck and hard cases, one involving a traumatic slaughtering of chickens. “I don’t wanna hear about the chickens, for god’s sake!”

The soft-boiled dialogue, peppered with frank talk and profanity, doesn’t exactly sing with Mamet-ian grace, except in the case of Captain Miller, Danny’s bully of a dad, played by Robert Clohessy, who definitely has a way with the f-word (the four-letter one). The tight editing, pulsating score and deadly serious tone denote a sharp suspense mystery that just has no chance of materializing around characters who behave this illogically. “He’s a good kid,” Angela keeps insisting, despite all evidence of Danny’s instability. Although the circumstances surrounding Danny’s crime are credibly murky, his actions onscreen and Jogia’s smarmy performance leave little room for audience investment in Danny’s purported goodness. Rather, he’s a stalker who lights his cigarette by striking a match off one of Tom’s hardcovers, before leering about how hot Tom’s wife is.

Charles, his brow in constant furrow, broods over Tom’s escalating game of cat-and-mouse like a ’40s noir detective, which is to say, effectively for this style of picture. If he can’t sell Tom’s lack of common sense, he makes a valiant effort. As Lauren, a figurative painter itching to ditch the couple’s rustic, exurban life for a return to the New York City art scene, Stiles pines believably for more than Tom’s offering, and sparks some meaningful heat opposite Jogia, in one reasonably taut scene when Lauren bumps into Danny in the Big Apple. Throughout, the film deploys sexual tension to only mild effectiveness.

Case in point, Thoms’ parole officer Angela appears turned on or spooked by her previous encounters with Danny, but neither we nor Tom ever learn if she’s hiding something. What lines did she and Danny cross? Credit to Thoms for wringing a performance that hints at scarring, unspoken knowledge of her parolee, to add motivation for Angela’s foolhardy confidence in Danny. Considering she spends practically every moment of her screen time discussing him, it’s strange that we never see Angela and Danny together. Maybe the whole time she’s talking about a different guy. That would be a twist that might explain much of these characters’ often inexplicable behavior—although it wouldn’t explain the chickens.

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