Release Date: May 10, 2017 (Limited)
Director: Bette Gordon
MPAA Rating: NR
Runtime: 95 Minutes
The neo-noir mystery film is a tough nut to crack. David Fincher is the one director who has a 100% track record with it, and most new additions to the genre feel like cheap knock-offs of Fincher’s style and pacing. The Drowning is a particularly egregious example of this, mixing Fincher’s detective narratives with the psychiatry drama of The Sixth Sense to create…well, nothing good.
The film stars Josh Charles as Tom Seymour, a psychiatrist who saves a man from drowning while on a walk with his wife Lauren, played by Julia Styles. The man he saves happens to be a former patient who Tom had helped send to prison a decade earlier. Danny Miller, played by Avan Jogia, is your average creepy, twenty-something ex-con who, surprise, keeps showing up at Seymour’s house, work and everywhere else Seymour goes.
During these scenes, we have the conventional binary of Miller being creepy with Seymour one minute before being charming and good natured with civilians the next. Seymour – a psychiatrist, and definitely not a detective – then begins investigating Miller, checking in with old social workers and other psychiatrists about Miller’s history in prison. The mystery deepens over the next 45 minutes before the film’s climax, which is robbed of all impact by everything that came before it.
You might notice by this point that I haven’t mentioned what the mystery is yet. That’s because the only mystery is Miller himself. This is where The Sixth Sense content comes in. The plot moves at a snail’s pace because there is no plot; Miller is charismatic and creepy, so Seymour obviously has to investigate, right? There are plenty of issues with the film, but they all stem from this one.
There are plot machinations that are designed to instill the viewer with doubt about Miller’s real intentions; some of these tropes feel consistent with the characters the film gives us, others are totally unmotivated. Miller is unusually good at getting into locked rooms and houses that he shouldn’t be able to access, for example.
The Drowning uses every trope in the book, throwing everything at the screen, hoping something might stick: the film insinuates that Miller may have been molested as a teen by portraying one of his former psychiatrists as vaguely effeminate and creepy; Seymour, for some totally unexplained reason, has an affair with one of this psychiatrist’s patients; an animal gets decapitated (off screen).
The problem with films like this is that they know the tropes but don’t know what they are in service of. With Fincher, the narrative is always about something more. Se7en is about post-modernity and American identity; Zodiac is about masculinity and obsession; Gone Girl is about patriarchy and marriage. The Drowning isn’t about anything in particular.
During the film’s climax, Miller accuses Seymour of being selfish and a coward, only acting to help others when it suits his best interests. This could have been interesting, but this is the first time that theme is introduced, making it more confusing than impactful. There’s no meaning, no commentary and no substance, leaving the mediocre performances, poor writing and unremarkable filmmaking to rot on screen.