Film Review: Wetlands

In this atmospheric crime thriller, a disgraced police detective becomes ensnared in a web of petty crime and corruption during off-season in a small New Jersey seaside town.
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Babel "Babs" Johnson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) used to be a hotshot cop in Philadelphia, working undercover to root out drug dealers. But he picked up a nasty habit and lost his both his judgment and his job, along with his wife, Savannah (Heather Graham), and custody of their now-adolescent daughter, Amy (Celeste O'Connor). Now he's come to New Jersey to try to pick up the pieces. He has a last-chance job with the local police—old favors called in—and a new partner in local Paddy Sheehan (Christopher McDonald), who's married to newscaster Kate Buchanen (Jennifer Ehle). Babel is hoping to mend fences with Savannah, at least enough that she'll let him spend more time with Amy. But that proves a tall order, since the hard-partying Savanna is living with her new girlfriend, Surfer Girl (Reyna de Courcy), and Amy isn't anxious to reacquaint herself with the father who abandoned her.

There's plenty of crime going on in Wetlands: low-level drug dealing and petty theft, mobbed up local casinos and some prostitution, but mostly grifting and doping and brawling, especially once the summer season ends. Since that's when Johnson arrives, he has plenty to keep him busy in between turning over rocks, making enemies and picking at his emotional scabs until they bleed.

Not to be confused with the 2014 adaptation of German novelist Charlotte Roche's controversial tale of a teenager obsessed with bodily fluids and functions, Emanuele Della Valle's Wetlands is a somber neo-noir distinguished largely by its atypical setting—which is not to say that there are no other dark crime thrillers that play out in small communities bleached by the harsh light of the sun (Chinatown, anyone?), only that they're a minority variation on the theme. Where Wetlands hews to the rules in its gloomy view of human nature: Its characters are a veritable menagerie of users, abuser and losers, all of whom are in the same gutter and precious few of whom are looking at the stars—a mighty highfalutin' allusion (it's Oscar Wilde) for the character who makes it and not especially germane to the situation. Fortunately, the cast is uniformly fine and de Courcy, with her small, sharp and remarkably expressive face, stands out in an impressive ensemble. Ultimately, Wetlands is the kind of movie most likely to find its niche outside theatrical venues, where its small, thorny insights will be going head to head with high-profile franchises and big special effects.

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