AbandonReviewed By Jack Sommersby
Posted 05/26/03 08:04:55
It's ultimately a failure, but a good-looking and interesting one, at that.Stephen Gaghan's Abandon is a failure, yet it's such an intriguing and respectable one that I find myself a bit disheartened at having to give it a non-recommendation. As it is, the film is mostly interesting yet not compulsively so, moderately entertaining but not much more. It's not hard to define the film's chief flaw: its obligation to ultimately serve as a psychological thriller when the majority of its scenes are clearly indicative of a psychological drama. With a screenplay that's uncommonly perceptive to character, it's more than a bit of a cheat when the outstanding individual sequences, where people act and talk believably, are shortchanged by a story that negates these better qualities to fuse with a fuzzy suspense core that has little or no valid dramatization. The suspense aspects comes off as having been thrown into the mix solely to accomadate the popcorn-munchers who need their "fix" when darkening the doors of their nearest multiplex, regardless of whether or not it's intrinsically valid to the other components that manage to ring true. What's more, the attempts at suspense are rather weakly executed, anyway, so everything might have been better for all involved if the film had simply stuck to what it's good at and jettisoned what it has no taste or talent for. It's ambition winds up shortchanging not only the audience, but also a promising filmmaker who could have accomplished more if he'd simply strived for less.
Katie Holmes stars as Katie Burke, a college senior who's going through the usual trials and tribulations of a soon-to-be graduate -- she's pouring all of her time into her thesis and preparations for interviews with prospective big-business employers. She's extremely bright (maybe even brilliant) and has worked her way up the academic ladder with her smarts; having grown up poor and orphaned, she's gotten to where she is through scholarships and financial aid, and even though her future looks quite promising, she refuses to let up until she officially graduates (which she refers to as the "finish line"). Pretty, charming and mysterious, it's little wonder that Katie has a habit of attracting too many guys she either doesn't have time for or is simply not interested in, and she feels remorse at not being able to please them -- she's been written to suggest a young woman who's conscience-stricken with matters most people would shuck off as "inevitables of life". While she has plenty of friends, she doesn't quite seem one of them -- there's something a bit off with her, as if she's giving a performance, monitoring herself from a safe distance to guage other people's reactions, ensuring that she's being viewed as normal as her everyday comrades. Added to which, she hasn't dated in two years, not since the disappearance of her rich, charming, attractive boyfriend, Embry Langan (Charlie Hunnam), who she lost her virginity to and just can't seem to get over.
The initial investigation into Embry's disappearance revealed he had two airline tickets to an exotic, out-of-country locale that went uncollected; furthermore, no credit-card charges nor bank withdraws have been detected. The case gets a reopening when the attorney for Embry's estate wishes for an official declaration that Embry is dead so the estate can be turned over to a charity, which will handsomely benefit from this. Enter Detective Wade Handler (Benjamin Bratt), who's been assigned this undemanding missing-person's case by his caring superior, Lieutenant Bill Stayton (Fred Ward), as a stepping stone back into department respectability after a recent suspension for drug usage and addiction. Wade treats the assignment more seriously than most others would for two reasons: one, immersing himself in his work keeps him from worries of regressing back to his old ways; two, he becomes infatuated with Katie, even though he knows perfectly well he's too old for her and probably detrimental to her future. At first, Katie finds his insistence unwelcome, but then she starts to relent upon realizing how similarly dependent they are on other people; she thinks he needs her as bad as she needs someone, so she thinks she doesn't have to worry about him up and disappearing on her like Embry. But when Katie starts seeing Embry in public places and soon starts engaging in conversations with him, she insists to others that he's back, though they're dubious as to her credence being that no one but her has recently laid eyes on him.
By now, you're probably getting a fair idea of how Abandon has been intended to grab an audience. What we're not prepared for, however, is how diligent the filmmaking seems to be in paying more attention to character than trumped-up story incidents. Abandon may be an intended thriller, but it doesn't play itself out like one -- not really. The scenes are fully felt out, don't seem rushed, and manage to serve a definite purpose without climaxing out for the sole sake of keeping us geared up for an endless series of revelations to come; there's an economy to the shaping and an incisiveness to the introspection of them that gives the story a good deal of gravitas, rootedness -- for the most part, you don't get the impression you're watching stereotypes doing stereotypical things to progress the plot and serve up cheap effects. Which is all the more maddening because after the first forty-five minutes or so, the attempts at genuine suspense are trotted out, and they're so poorly directed and disproportionate to the goings-on preceding them that you might hear yourself letting out an involuntary groan at the mere inclusion of them in the first place, when it's so adamantly clear that they're not only ineffective, but purely extraneous for the sole sake of attempting to turn an audience on. (We sort of feel as if we're health-conscious high school students insisting on being fed a nutritious meal at lunch, with the principal insisting we down what's offered up in the vending machines to satisfy a quota by the snack-food companies that stock them.)
Katie has taken to studying late at the library alone, so we get a few scenes of her being slightly unnerved by the insinuating remarks by a jealous student: mousy Julie (Melanie Lynskey), who pushes the book carousel with a creepy, ashen look that brings to mind The Sixth Sense and (unintentionally?) Ghostbusters. And we know it's not too darn long before she starts hearing noises, just to be suspicious enough to peer through a bookcase, just so she can be shocked at glimpsing a set of eyes staring back at her. These are stock moments, and the screenwriter, Stephen Gaghan, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for Traffic (overrated) and whose directorial debut this is, doesn't show much flair for staging them. In truth, his heart clearly isn't into perfunctory suspense moments such as this, but he also doesn't have an adequate-enough grasp on how to blend a sinister tone into the proceedings; whenever the film goes back to talking heads, it's like we're in a totally different film with a completely different tone, one that's disarming and relaxed -- just like the direction, which isn't taut and swift enough to propel us along with a sense of immediacy and unnerve us with underlying tension. And there are hints of the supernatural that are completely shot due to Gaghan's naivety as an effective manipulative filmmaker: we don't see all of the film's events occur through a one-person's view, so being that Katie shares protagonist duties with Wade, and since we know that Wade isn't delusional, the lack of confirmation of the sightings of Embry clues us into a likely instability in Katie, and the element of surprise is thus dissipated.
Don't get the idea that Gaghan is incompetent, though; he clearly isn't. The dialogue is fresh and natural and occasionally screwy enough so we can buy into it being mouthed by well-etched individuals without it ever veering into self-conscious babble. The characters are all distinctive without donning eccentric tags, and Gaghan respects them enough to allow them to speak without intrusive points being made; Abandon showcases some of the best one-on-one character exchanges I've witnessed in quite some time. And Gaghan's visual sense is atypically astute for a first-time director. Working with the talented cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Gaghan uses a bold and controlled color scheme to give the film a gloriously gloomy, Gothic tactility that makes grand use of various shades of darkness, suggestively menacing shadows, and the most impressive use of depth and scope in a widescreen frame since John Boorman's The General. (There isn't a bum shot to be spied anywhere.) Gaghan also manages to smoothly and coherently juxtapose flashbacks and present-day scenes, so we're not overly aware of the flashbacks as a device, but as a deepener, an emphasis on the emotional toll the passage of time takes on people who insist they've gotten over a particular life's hurdle yet still suffer from the consequences of memory. Having granted him all of this, it must be noted that at this directorial stage Gaghan's film sense isn't fully developed enough to mesh story with visuals in creating a unified vision; he's still working out how to take an idea and express it in visual terms, so it's given aesthetic room to vibrate with implications rather than spelled-out meaning.
There isn't a lot of subtlety or ambiguity in Abandon, which is the kiss of death for any psychological drama or thriller. A lot of this is due to Gaghan's inefficient staging of pertinent scenes, like Katie seeing Embry waltz into a restaurant where she's discussing a missing student with the person's parents, and we're asked to question whether what Katie is seeing is real or not, when the answer is fairly obvious due to her inactions. Some is due to Gaghan's lame realization of his abandonment theme, which follows a predictable dramatic course rather than the complex one taken in the mesmerizing Ashley Judd thriller Eye of the Beholder. And a good deal due to another mediocre, uncommunicative performance by Katie Holmes, who gets upstaged as easily here by her dynamic co-star Zooey Deschanel as she did by the dynamic Marisa Coughlan in Teaching Mrs. Tingle. (She doesn't even take close-ups very well -- they merely accentuate her vapidity as an actress.) If Abandon were merely the sum of most of its parts, it would probably make for a stellar entertainment, but it ventures off into areas its maker simply isn't good at, and the fact that he doesn't overdo it with the 'Boo!' moments doesn't necessarily translate into tactfulness, because the thriller areas it mistakenly ventures into are unrewarding. So despite a great "look", super supporting performances (especially by Deschanel and the immensely appealing Bratt), and a good deal of strong individual scenes, Abandon is the kind of film you can halfway respect without awarding it a ringing endorsement. It's certainly better than the dreadfully somnolent, grossly overpraised The Ring, yet it remains a frustrating disappointment all the same.Katie Holmes' breasts in "The Gift" speak more volumes than her dour performance here.
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