Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Drownsman: Mean Girls

For all of the moral panic surrounding them, slasher films are a deeply conservative expression of the horror genre - they are worlds in which any misstep, from a rashly-made decision to drinking to defying authority to mocking traditional values to extramarital sex, tends to be rewarded by death of varying degrees of violence and ickiness. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the idea of the Final Girl. In most slasher movies, women make up a decent chunk of the victims. Maybe not all, but most, and it’s typical for the upstanding, virtuous, oh-let’s-just-say-it-she’s-a-virgin  woman in the bunch to be the one who survives and even turns the tables on the antagonist. So the hot take is that women are victims, unless they are “pure,” in which case they aren’t. On top of everything else that might give one pause about slasher films, that the women in them are defined almost entirely by their relationship to men (and their value in patriarchal terms) might not be the first thing that comes to mind, but it’s a problem.

The Drownsman is interesting, insofar as it’s a story driven almost entirely by women, in a genre where that’s hardly typical. Unfortunately, this would probably mean more if their portrayals weren’t so utterly unsympathetic and the story they inhabit so transparently formulaic.

It begins at the end of another movie, - one about a serial killer named Sebastian, who ritually drowns his victims, and the Final Girl who defeats him…or so she thinks. Black screen, panicked breathing, open to a woman lying in a crawlspace terrified as a hulking figure drags her toward a tub. She begs him not to, and when he puts her in the tub, she catches him off-guard by kissing him, then stabbing him with a shard of glass. You know, like women do. But ah, there’s a twist - when she submerges him in the tub as she stabs him, he...vanishes. Gone. It’s just her in the tub. Screams and smash to black.

Then, we flash forward to a different movie, this one, about a young woman named Madison and her three best friends, one of whom, Hannah, is engaged to be married. As they’re out celebrating, Madison has an accident, and falls into the lake…

...and wakes up in some nightmare basement, with a sodden, hulking monstrosity looming over her.

Flash forward yet again to a year later, and it’s Hannah’s wedding night, and Madison - the maid of honor - is trapped helplessly in her room as rain pours down outside. She’s developed a profound fear of water and so, afraid of leaving the house, misses the wedding. Hannah is furious, because God it’s been a whole year and can't she just be over it by now. Never mind that she takes all of her fluids intravenously because she can’t even drink a glass of water, this is Hannah’s night. Madison’s friends - Hannah, Kobie, and Lauren - decide to stage what they think of as an intervention, because as far as they’re concerned, Madison just needs someone to humor her crazy shit for a second and everything will be fine again. The intervention takes the form of sort of a séance-meets-exorcism-meets-immersion therapy, using a woman who has experience contacting the dead, and because we are dealing with the ghost of a serial killer who has a thing for water, shit goes all kinds of wrong from there in a real hurry.

And this is the first problem with the movie - her friends are not just unbelieving, they’re unsupportive to the point of utter callousness. Hannah sets up this “intervention” with the help of a medium, but expects…and even insists…that it be a hoax, a going through of the motions and she’s immediately nasty and dismissive to the medium when she tries to insist otherwise. This goes beyond being a bad friend into psychological cruelty. Lauren blithely refers to Madison as “our crazy friend” and there’s no appearance of any sympathy or goodwill from any of them. If these are her best friends, it’s a toxic fucking relationship.

Needless to say, it’s very difficult to connect emotionally with any of these people (even Madison seems written more as a cringing victim than anything else - and though that isn’t necessarily bad as a way of demonstrating just how traumatic an encounter with the supernatural would be, it makes it hard to really get on her character’s side). This isn’t really a movie about the toll mental illness can take on the friends and loved ones of the sufferer, and though that could be a good movie (The Taking Of Deborah Logan almost gets there sometimes...almost), this film is by no means equipped or inclined to go down that path, so what we have instead is a bunch of really shitty people that we’re supposed to believe are Madison’s friends because they keep saying so, rather than showing it. Contrast this with the complicated-but-believable relationship between the two sisters in Absentia, for example. As a result, we pretty much know right away that this is going to be a movie in which these shitty people get picked off by a vengeful ghost one by one, and that’s exactly what we get. No real surprises to be had on that front, and so the opportunity to feel bad for these people as they die, one by one, is diminished because they’re people who dismissed forces they didn’t understand and who therefore deserve their fate. We’re just marking time between kills at that point.

The Drownsman is, however, notable for being pretty much entirely about and concerning women, though - the antagonist is male, and there’s maybe one secondary male character and, I think, one other speaking part for a man total. Hannah’s fiancée/husband never shows up, and isn’t even really mentioned even when it’s established Hannah’s getting married. Were it not for the bad guy, this film would almost past the Bechdel Test, which is worth noting. But that’s…about it. Because in every other way, it’s really rote. The dialogue sounds like dialogue, that is, it sounds like exposition, not how people actually talk, and the acting is uniformly just wooden enough to highlight the problems with what’s actually being said. The film doesn’t really pay much attention to external logic (sure, just walk in unannounced into a mental hospital in the middle of the night and say you’re there to see a patient, why not? That’s how it works, right?), or even internal logic (without spoiling much, this vengeful ghost plays by a set of rules, like all vengeful ghosts, but they only seem to apply when necessary for the plot). The antagonist is made more monstrous than strictly necessary (he doesn’t just drown women…he drowns them because he stayed in the womb for 19 months as a child and longs for the sound of his mother’s heartbeat…what the fuck?), and the whole thing ends with absolutely no attention to or respect for anything else that happened in the film. I think it’s trying for the sort of last-minute reversal that The Ring pulled off nicely, but because it occurs without context or reference to anything else that happened, it just comes up as something beyond cheap and into cinematic Calvinball territory.

It’s too bad, because its production values are pretty high, and it does have some well-done moments (Madison sitting on her bed, distraught on the night of Hannah’s wedding, the rain pouring down the window reflected onto her was a nice touch), the ghost is handled well for the majority (not entirety, but majority) of the movie, the effects are pretty good, and water is a great hook - it can go almost anywhere, it’s ubiquitous and necessary for life, and drowning, as a manner of death, is certainly less over-done that death by various and sundry sharp things. There’s almost no blood in this movie, and that’s a good thing. But all of this is in service of a story so completely by-the-numbers, assembled with so little insight into human nature, care for plausibility, or sense of anything but a constructed narrative that it undoes any goodwill engendered (ha!) by the things it does right. Ghost stories work because something unnatural and unreal is intruding on the natural and real, and nothing in this film - not the way the characters relate to each other, not the way institutions or social niceties work, nothing - feels natural or real. These are a group of women, propped up as terrible to each other, set up to be knocked down as they move from one setpiece to another, the people with which they interact having no sense of life or even existence outside of the moments they need to be in the movie to move the plot along. And so, in its own way, it reinforces the very status quo - cinematically and in terms of gender representation - that it could have just as easily subverted.

Unavailable on Netflix

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