Saturday 1 October 2016

Drown (2016) - Movie Review

There isn’t a day that goes by where I’m not grateful for the environments that I was raised in. A supportive family that I could literally tell anything to, the right friends (mostly) who are willing to lend an ear if I need to vent or vice versa, a country that’s a mongrel patchwork of pretty much every civilization that has existed in the last two centuries; not gonna lie, I lucked out in that regard. And in no other regard am I more thankful than when it comes to LGBT issues.

My own place within that spectrum is still being sorted out, mainly out of trying to understand its various nuances to find my exact place within it (if there even is one), but I grew up around people who were more than willing to accept it. Hell, when I came out at my Year 12 formal (in response to a gay joke, no less), there was a mixture of silence, giggles and relieving smiles that showed me that there is a place for me in this world with that in mind. However, there is a part of me that feels somewhat guilty of my own gratitude, as I know for a fact that not everyone is as fortunate when it comes to what people understand. Sheltered childhood for the win, I guess? Anyway, I bring all this up to bring my own perspective to the forefront because… wow, this is a bit of a tough one to dissect.

The plot: Len (Matt Levett), a champion surf lifesaver, has had his dominant place taken by newcomer Phil (Jack Matthews). When Len discovers that Phil is gay, he and his friend Meat (Harry Cook) take him on a wild night on the town. As the night carries on, Len is confronted by his prejudices and how he chooses to deal with them could end up with something getting killed.

The cast here is pretty good. Levett manages to balance between his disgustingly hateful behaviour and his almost mournful contemplations to turn what should be a pretty simple antagonist into a weirdly sympathetic anti-hero. Matthews works really well because he doesn’t come across as someone who is solely using his sexuality to characterise himself, instead using it as just an aspect of his character that the rest of the world keeps focusing on. It also helps that, as the film goes on, his reactions to the abuse he’s given are at once heart-breaking and kind of horrifying in their own right. Cook serves as the closest this film has to a voice of reason, and his chemistry with Levett shows just about every conceivable emotion attached to their friendship beyond words. Aside from our main cast, the only other highlight that comes to mind is Maya Stange, who is hauntingly effective as a woman whose image keeps haunting Len.

We’re dealing with yet another indie film, so I’m almost obligated to go into the production values. As is usually the case, it’s a pretty small budgeted affair but you certainly wouldn’t guess that just from looking at it. Sure, it has similar cinematography and even narrative structure of what could be called the ‘standard indie film’, but the quality and skill on display here is absolute cinema quality. The preternatural understanding of proximity in the camera work, making even the expansive shots feel as suffocating as a rope around the throat, the Argento-level colour palette, the encompassing wall of sound design; this is a very nicely crafted piece of work.

Although, that last point about the sound also represents this film’s biggest technical hitch: The ADR. The film has a lot of narration to it, which makes sense and actually works considering the main character and how he is supposed to be interpreted. However, some of it feels like either a concept that wasn’t translated right or an attempt to salvage footage where the audio couldn’t be. I say that because, in quite a few flashbacks, it consists of Len narrating what the other characters are saying… while they’re on screen. This also extends to a bit of malfunction in the translation from play to film where he ends up narrating what we can clearly see on the screen. And then there’s the random bits of live dubbing that are rather painfully conspicuous amongst the rest of the audio. It all ends up distracting a fair bit from the drama… although, for reasons I’m about to get into, maybe a little distraction from the events was a good idea.

Out of all the films I’ve covered on this blog over the last two years, this might be the single most depressing that I’ve sat through. Yeah, films like Where The Dead Go To Die are flat-out disturbing and 12 Years A Slave are crushingly downbeat, but this taps into something a bit different than any of those. Basically, this film seems to revel in misery and various other unpleasant feelings, something made perfectly clear from the beginning where Len and Meat are seen digging a grave at the beach. Through the jumbled story arrangement and the very claustrophobic tone of the film, we are shown various examples of abuse inflicted on the characters because they are either gay or otherwise considered less than men. This is one of the few R-rated films we’re likely to get all year, and you can damn well see that here as there is very little that this film isn’t willing to show. It’s very dark, very unpleasant and there isn’t a whole lot of levity to be found in it.

What’s more is that the film does a lot of telling alongside the showing, delving into the cultural attitudes and internalisation that can create such behaviour and propagate it. Being a larger part of the geek community than the jock community, I don’t connect as heavily with these ideals as I probably should… but being a part of Youtube and hip-hop communities for as long as I have, I also understand that homophobia and alpha-male mentality are both real and sadly prevalent. Once again, we have a film that is excruciatingly dour but that also has all the justification for it: Because it wants to highlight a very hazardous element of humanity, that being masculinity and how the expectations attached to it can irrevocably damage people. Rather than get into any treatise of my own about gender roles, I’d rather just leave it for people more articulate than myself to provide perspective. I’ll just leave it at how director/co-writer Dean Francis wanted to find answers to why these actions happen, and what he and in turn we find is especially grim.

All in all, while rather hazy in its structure and a bit iffy in its production, this is one of those few film-circuit-ready films that I can actually find myself endorsing. The acting is good, the direction is solid and the writing takes a very dark look into modern masculinity, managing to subvert this being purely another addition to the Queer Cinema canon by portraying it as a pretty universal issue. Like I said, I’m not even a part of the usual ego-driven alpha male demographics, and even I was quite confronted by what I saw.

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