The Deep End: Bette Gordon’s The Drowning

the-drowningThe Drowning (2017)
Directed by Bette Gordon
Opens May 10 at IFC Center

Based on Pat Barker’s dark novel Border Crossing, Bette Gordon’s ambitious psychological thriller The Drowning opens with an intentionally truncated (ergo enigmatic) scene in which psychiatrist Tom Seymour (Josh Charles), on a romantic seaside walk with his wife Lauren (Julia Stiles), saves a young man, Danny Miller, from drowning himself in a river. As they thrash in the water, Danny seems sadly resistant, Tom nobly selfless. It becomes clear in short order that the two know each other: twelve years earlier, Tom’s assessment that Danny, as an eleven-year old, had committed a grisly murder landed him in a juvenile correctional facility from which he has only just been released. From his hospital bed, Danny—who now calls himself Ian Wilkinson—accuses Tom of helping convict him for a crime he didn’t commit.

Thus, the movie sets up competently if rather derivatively as a story about a semi-justified predator who places the protagonist’s unsussed loved one in jeopardy, like Cape Fear, Fatal Attraction, and The Gift, as well as a seductive criminal trickster tale, along the lines of Jagged Edge, Primal Fear, and The Talented Mr. Ripley. But here the filmmaker is additionally asking who—Tom or Danny—is the real victim and who is the real perpetrator. Tom does not tell Lauren about his history with Danny, presumably out of guilt and embarrassment that he may be the culprit. In turn, Danny stalks and charms Lauren, jolting Tom out of his position of superior control.

The Drowning is set mainly in New London, Connecticut, where Tom has his practice, and segues periodically to New York (mainly Bushwick), where Lauren is trying to advance her painting career. There’s some pretty obvious exposition—Danny establishes his defiant hostility by lighting a cigarette in the uptight Tom’s office and tossing it on the floor, and the backstory arrives by way of a stilted barroom conversation between him and a cynical prosecutor. It also takes improbably long for Tom to figure out he’s been set up. Cinematically, though, Gordon compensates. She plays on drab autumn grays and New England off-whites to amplify the area’s washed-out, post-industrial feel, imparting a credible sense of oppressiveness to the story. The film is deftly edited, the shots thoughtfully framed. Charles and Stiles, both very good, along with incisively effective character actors John C. McGinley and Robert Clohessy, flatter the script. Avan Jogia, while initially a little unsteady as Danny, grows nicely into character.

Moreover, Gordon tackles the weighty themes of voyeurism, altruism, and self-preservation artfully and inventively, subverting clichés and taking the genre in a refreshing direction. Doubting his diagnosis that Danny was a murderer, Tom becomes torn between upward mobility—he and Lauren are trying to have a baby, and she wants to relocate to New York, where they met—and moral duty. Tilting the balance towards the latter is a childhood incident in which Tom pushed another child into the water, nearly causing him to drown. He wants to make his life right again by redeeming Danny, which might also atone for the broken life of the boy, now an adult, who he had harmed. But Lauren, whom the plot structure renders clueless but invariably confident, at one point admonishes him that life isn’t all about good or bad—that sometimes it’s just messy.

The payoff scene follows that cue. It is violent, creative, and convincing enough. There may be closure, but it doesn’t necessarily avert ruin. At the same time, Gordon rejects abject tragedy in favor of a more complicated view of human affairs that’s just about acceptable if morbidly downbeat. That, she seems to be suggesting, may be the best we can hope for, and she makes her case.

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