Generally speaking, when we watch a movie we expect, or at least hope, for something entertaining, and that's about it. We typically don't expect to be wowed, which is why it seems so special when that happens. It didn't happen here, in case you were wondering, but it was an interesting experience in its own way.
I didn't have high expectations for this film when first I saw it, and confess that I only watched it because I thought Katie Holmes was cute-this was before she became a brainwashed nutbag thanks to that rampaging idiot at large Tom "I like to rattle off at the mouth over things I know next to nothing about because my holy sci-fi geek guru couldn't get his damn fool head straight in therapy" Cruise. Ahh, what a waste. Anyway, went in expecting some bonehead plot about a stalking ex-boyfriend that would feature all sorts of predictable scares and people trying and failing to climb over the sorts of fences we've all successfully climbed in our lives, and got something else. This film, despite dumbassed marketing that seemed finely calculated to lie to and thus piss off the audience, is not a thriller at all. In fact, about a third of the content of the trailer isn't even in the finished film, making one wonder just how much beyond the tiny collection of deleted scenes on the DVD was left moldering in a garbage bin somewhere. What this actually turned out to be is a film about tension and psychological pressure, a movie more about mood than about the grinding gears of the relentless plot machine, filled with a cool reserve and disquiet. It has good direction. It has beautiful cinematography. It has well-written dialogue. Katie Holmes is actually good as the lead, playing smart, confident, and emotionally wrecked in equally well-executed proportions. What it unfortunately fails to have is a very compelling story.
Stephen Gaghan, freshly off his stint as screenwriter for the Academy Award-winning film Traffic, makes his directorial debut with what feels like a well-crafted student film that would be perfectly fine at a running time of half an hour, which he then had to pad out for another full hour with a lot of redundant filler material. The script for Abandon feels like half a story; it does fine when it's centering on Katie (which also happens to be her character's name, just to be clear) and the mounting pressure she feels as she faces graduation, a hoped-for slot in some soul-sucking corporation, and the possible return of her long-lost love Embry Larkin (whose last name is curiously given incorrectly by both Gaghan and Holmes, in two different ways, in the accompanying documentary), a pretentious postmodern twat who would prefer to spend his time belittling his audience for liking his half-assed work instead of having actual ideas. In this respect, the film works just fine: the tension is palpable in the air as Katie struggles to keep her life from coming unglued, pausing only briefly to smile longingly when she's high off her ass before returning to her encroaching depression. The problem is that the other half of the story, concerning Benjamin Bratt as a detective on the trail of the lost, wealthy, and possibly dead Embry, goes damn near nowhere and feels very tacked-on. He does virtually no detecting until the final fifteen minutes of the film, and the subplot about him being a recovering alcoholic, aside from being a tireworn cop movie cliché, really doesn't ever matter; we never feel as though we're supposed to be watching his story. I don't mind a languid mood in a film, but a character needs to actually do something in a film to justify his/her presence, and Bratt's Wade Handler is too much of a passive observer to gain our interest. The few scenes of actual detective work on his part are nicely done, with the "show, don't tell" method effectively utilised, but it's too little, and a little too late. Zooey Deschanel is an earnest breath of bubbly fresh air as Katie's best friend, and I understand that the film is supposed to be about isolation, but I still wish we could've had a little more of her. She at least makes the scenes, especially the ones with Handler, feel like they're moving somewhere.
Ultimately, what we end up with is a film that fails on the promise of its more interesting scenes. The big dramatic device it hinges on, which would likely have been considered innovative at one point, now feels a little too obvious and predictable. There's also one scene which seems utterly inexplicable (Embry's makeshift bed in the old dorm) given this resolution, and an annoyingly needling sense of "so how exactly did that go unnoticed all that time?" when we finally learn what's really up. Gaghan spend a lot of time packing Traffic and his newest script/directorial effort Syriana chock-full of plot, making me wonder where that wealth of ideas was lurking about when he was writing this one. Its best parts have a singular and interesting character, but the whole doesn't hold together well enough to make this a truly good film. Mood and nuance will only get you just so far, no matter how beguiling it might be.
-review by Matt Murray