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Misguided Thriller/Character Study, but not as bad as many claim it is
I was a little hard on this film when I initially reviewed it upon its release. After watching it on DVD again I realized that there is a very clever and beautiful story to be told but problems in the script prevent it from truly taking off. The performances, cinematography, and music are all great but it just can't seem to find a solid direction.
A film's trailer is a gateway to success and sometimes failure. In the case of Abandon, it proved to be the latter. The film was marketed as a non-stop psychological thriller but to be honest the thrills are few and far between. Abandon is more a character study with the atmosphere of a thriller. The film's main priority is to tell a story and I think audiences were really disappointed when they saw a movie that was short on thrills. That could explain its not so great $10 million dollar box office gross.
Abandon is about a beautiful young girl named Katie Burke (Katie Holmes) who is nearing her graduation from a very prestigious school. She has a nice future ahead of her, including a potential job at a top New York firm. However, things begin to unravel when Katie's past comes back to haunt her. A police detective, by the name of Wade Handler (Benjamin Bratt), is investigating the disappearance of Embry Langan (Charlie Hunnam), Katie's wealthy and sometimes eccentric ex-boyfriend. Embry has not been seen or heard from in 2 years, and the lawyers for his estate want to know whether he's alive or dead. When the detective begins to bring up several events from the past, Katie begins to see Embry around campus and other various locations. Has Embry come back for love or revenge?
Abandon has a lot of positives but a thriller it certainly is not. Abandon falters when it tries, at great lengths, to scare and surprise its audience. Stephen Gaghan, who won an Oscar for writing Traffic and is directing for the first time with this film, can't seem to properly direct scenes that are suppose to keep us on the edge of our seats. However, He does a good job of making us wonder if Embry is really back or if Katie is seeing things. Most of his encounters come about when she's half asleep or frustrated and the possibility of these two different outcomes are one of the scripts strengths. Another scene that resonates involves a truly alarming surprise for our main character when she's alone in the library. Other than that, all the thrills are by the book or non-existent.
Abandon's biggest strength is what isn't shown in the trailers. First and foremost this film works as a very deep character study. As a character, Katie is very interesting and her past experiences with men (including her father) who have left her plays an important part into the mysterious disappearance of Embry. The character is well developed and several scenes give us great insight into her inner struggles. We learn about her relationship with Embry through beautifully filmed flashbacks that are probably the best aspects of this picture. The flashbacks are backed by a very moody score and a sense of realism that make for really good scenes. We learn through these sequences that Embry and Katie were a very happy couple, with a possibly nice future ahead of them. When the film switches back to real-time we realize why his disappearance has hurt her so much. There is also an interesting tidbit about how she attracts men and doesn't even realize it. This part of the story establishes many key points in the plot that I simply can't reveal here. Needless to say Katie's development as a character is far more interesting than the thrills, or lack thereof, that are present in this film. More emphasis should've been placed on the characters and not on what might scare us.
I must give major kudos to Katie Holmes for conveying all the emotions necessary to establish Katie Burke as a very interesting character. Katie Holmes proves that she can carry a film all on her own. Holmes usually turns in adequate performances in supporting roles such as in Wonder Boys and The Gift. In this film everything is on her shoulders and she comes out of it on top. A crucial scene during her job interview for the law firm is not just a statement of power for the character, but for Katie Holmes as well. The scene shows us that Katie Holmes is ready to play a WOMAN and is prepared to leave the fickle role of Dawson's Creek's Joey Potter behind. She carries herself so well during this film it makes you wonder what she can really do in a movie that has a better focus. Another asset that Katie brings to the role is a nice mix of naivety and sex appeal. Katie Holmes has a look of pure innocence but she carries herself with a sex appeal beyond her years. This works for the character during several key scenes. After Dawson Creek comes to an end this year Katie will be one of the few to have a flourishing movie career once the Creek dries up. The cast members should get in touch with her agent.
> Benjamin Bratt is stuck in a thankless supporting role that isn't much of a challenge for the actor. This is essentially the same part he played on Law & Order and in Miss Congeniality. I heard that he displayed a great deal of range in the critically acclaimed Pinero so maybe he should focus more on leading roles instead of throwaway supporting roles. I will say that I did buy the relationship between he and Katie that developed during the film. Some critics found it unbelievable but for this story I felt that it worked on a certain level.
Charlie Hunnam has a very difficult task of making Embry an interesting character. Since Embry is only shown through flashbacks and his few "return" encounters with Katie it must've been really hard for him convey the emotions necessary to make Embry the eccentric character that everyone describes him as. Hunnam is quite adequate in his few scenes. He does a good job of making Embry into a very spoiled and eccentric personality but there is something about this that hurts his character development. Half the flashbacks show him as a pampas asshole. The entire time they were trying to figure out if Embry just left town or if he was dead I really could care less. When a character is mostly unlikable it's very hard to care about what dastardly deed was committed against them.
Supporting performances from Gabrielle Union, and particularly Zooey Deschanel are quite good. Deschanel provides the film with much needed comic relief. When the film begins to lag she brings it back up with a very sharp delivery of some funny lines.
I guess the most disappointing thing about this film is that Stephen Gaghan's directorial debut is flawed, mainly because of his very own direction. There is a more compelling story to be told here and I think if he would've explored it more this film could've been much better. His script lays down the foundation for some great ideas but his direction doesn't allow them to shine through. He did some great work with the complex Traffic screenplay, creating interesting characters and interesting circumstances for them to fall back on. This is what makes this muddled effort a minor letdown. While watching a making of feature on the DVD I learned that he had never even picked up a camera to record anything as he was growing up. Maybe some more experience could've helped him as he was making this picture.
Technically the film is almost a masterpiece. The cinematography paints a very moody and effective atmosphere for the film. The cinematographer also did work on Requiem for a Dream and some of the brilliant work he did on that film is evident here. The use of beautifully lit backgrounds and scenery paint a perfect portrait for the flashback scenes and his use of dark blues and muddy greens provide set the mood for the darker themes of the story. For instance, there is a scene where Katie first sees Embry's return in a room that consists of a strobe light. The scene is so well done that it's one of the scenes that generates any tension. It's a scene that proves that atmosphere is key. The music, which was composed by another Requiem for a Dream team member, is also great. The score supplies a unique voice for the main character and almost serves as a way to get into her mind. There is a scene where Katie ventures back to Embry's country house for the first time since his disappearance and the scores soft yet moody use of the piano during this scene is enough to convey the emotions that the character is feeling.
I also was a bit hard on the film's ending when I first reviewed it but upon second viewing I think it actually works. It is a bit cliché but the acting throughout this sequence makes it bearable.
I recommend Abandon only if you're willing to accept the film for what it is: a character study that is light on the thrills. If you're going in expecting something that's going to keep you glued to your seat in fear then you may be disappointed.
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