In 1983, Bette Gordon directed the chill, tantalizingly unresolved Variety, in which a young woman goes to work in the ticket booth of a hard-core porn theater and begins to see herself through male eyes. On the posters, the come-on was, “Christine watches men watch women.” Since then, Gordon has spent a lot of screen time watching men, sometimes through women’s eyes, as in her creepy 1998 film Luminous Motion, where the mother of a young boy is forced to turn tricks; but more often unmediated, in Handsome Harry (2009) and now The Drowning. She has found her theme: how men are helpless before their basic and base urges. They are capable of regret, perhaps, but not of restraint, and they leave behind victims who might become, in turn, victimizers. It’s a closed, depressing vision, elevated by compassion and superbly evocative filmmaking.
Stephen Molton and Frank Pugliese adapted The Drowning from Pat Barker’s novel Border Crossing, which moves in a similar direction but with far greater subtlety — although that subtlety wouldn’t necessarily translate to the screen. In Gordon’s hands, it teeters on the edge of melodrama and even horror without slipping over, at least until the last couple of minutes. Josh Charles plays Tom Seymour, a psychiatrist who’s strolling with his artist wife, Lauren (Julia Stiles), along a New London, Connecticut, riverfront when they see a young man (Avan Jogia) jump in, fully clothed, in an apparent suicide attempt.
Tom’s risky rescue is heroic (and thrillingly shot), but he later discovers that the young man — who goes by the name Ian Wilkinson — is someone he once examined named Danny Miller. As an adolescent, Danny assaulted and smothered an old woman in a case that became notorious, and it was Tom who helped to confirm the boy’s guilt. Surreptitiously (to avoid publicity) released from confinement and with a new name, Danny now deposits himself in the middle of Tom’s world. He tells his former therapist, “coincidence is the crack in human affairs that lets God in,” but Tom — not much of a believer — increasingly suspects that the attempted drowning in his presence was no coincidence. Still, he agrees to take on Danny as a patient. He feels an obligation.
The Drowning focuses less on Danny’s guilt than Tom’s. Did he understand who the boy really was and what he’d been through? Danny’s father was stationed in Fallujah, and the (male) folly that was the criminally stupid Iraq occupation came home with him and led to a pattern of abuse. As Tom becomes obsessed with Danny’s past — with the boy’s crime and his subsequent time in confinement — he also registers the threat. Danny is an invader who turns up in Tom’s home and, most disturbingly, wherever Tom’s wife happens to be.
The movie is a prime specimen of “the paranoid style.” You feel it in the fractured visual palette, in the piecemeal depiction of Tom’s house and the quietly unnerving wind through the curtains. Tom’s home life was already destabilized. He wants Lauren to remain in New London, but her center of gravity is shifting to New York City, where her reputation as a painter is growing. Danny, with his sixth sense, puts his fingers in that fissure.
The Drowning has its share of lapses and clunks. The screenplay never manages to integrate Danny’s most ardent champion (Tracie Thoms) into the film — she feels like an excrescence even when, dramatically, she’s not. And the nature of the old woman’s murder and postmortem injuries are much more vivid (and ghastly) in Barker’s novel. But the tension compensates for much. Here and there, Gordon gives us courtroom and hospital scenes in which we register the plague of physical and sexual abuse. And Avan Jogia’s performance is frightening in its emotional intensity, in its flickering mixture of anger and neediness. There is no doubt that he believes in his innocence, cosmic if not literal.
The end of the movie is absurd — but sometimes a good capper is. There’s something awesome about a cathartic action that leads not to relief but more horror. In Bette Gordon’s universe, that’s the fundamental tragedy of being a man.