Paramount/Buena Vista .
R4 . COLOR . 95 mins .
M15+ . PAL
With his screenplay for the hit Traffic gathering first acclaim and then big-ticket awards, it’s not at all surprising that writer Stephen Gaghan would make the logical next step and try his hand at directing a movie. Formerly a successful TV writer on shows like The Practice and NYPD Blue, Gaghan was obviously keen to move away from the edgy drug drama of Traffic and try something new. The result is Abandon, which is advertised on the DVD cover as a “psychological thrill ride”. We’ve always reminded you not to believe the hype, of course, and in this case such a description is way off the mark. For while Abandon adopts some stylistic elements of the good old-fashioned thriller, at its heart it’s something completely different.
Behind you! Behind you!!!
Katie Burke (Katie Holmes, enjoying that rare treat of playing a character with the same name as herself) is a third-year university student who’s on the verge of graduating and taking on a challenging career in the finance sector. Back in her first year of college, her wilfully arty boyfriend Embry Larkin (Charlie Hunnam, who bears a striking resemblance to Brad Pitt) mysteriously vanished without trace and has not been heard from by anyone since. The police have been baffled for years, and so a new detective is assigned to the case - the ridiculously-named Wade Handler (Benjamin Bratt, who’ll be very familiar to Law and Order fans). He establishes in short order that Embry has probably committed suicide, but there’s a hitch - Katie, her memories of Embry awakened, suddenly starts seeing him around the campus, mysteriously following her. Meanwhile, Katie and her new policeman acquaintance are starting to become close…
This low-key, intensely understated film is something akin to a thriller on valium - there’s the steely-cold thrum tension lurking just underneath the surface for much of the running time, and there are certainly mysterious goings-on, possible murder and psychological demons to be fought by the characters. But aside from the very occasional sequence where Gaghan grabs the tension-o-meter and turns it up to 11 - complete with staccato music bursts and sudden loud sound effects - the tone of the film is decidedly elegiac. This isn’t a bad thing at all; in fact, as an odd mutation of a familiar genre it works quite well. Performances are generally very good, too - Katie Holmes may still be best known to most as Joey from Dawson’s Creek, but she gets the chance to show more of what she’s capable of here, and clicks with the movie’s mood effortlessly. The terrific Zooey Deschanel gets a too-small supporting role as Katie’s college friend Samantha, and the inimitable Fred Ward scores a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role that’s never fleshed out into anything especially solid.
The mysterious Embry tries not to look like Brad Pitt. He fails.
Perhaps tellingly, Gaghan has recruited a couple of Darren Aronofsky’s collaborators for the occasion. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique doesn’t quite get the sort of freedom to be inventive as he has in Aronofsky’s films, but his clever use of light and the wide frame certainly lends the film some visual impact. And composer Clint Mansell - the Pop Will Eat Itself frontman whose unexpected movie-scoring career got under way with Pi - provides the eerie, semi-electronic score here; it’s more subtle than his earlier work, but no less effective.
What’s really missing here, maybe, is a genuine emotional centre to the story; if the audience could get a better sense of Katie’s emotional turmoil, perhaps the events that unravel would have more impact rather than being mere plot developments. Ultimately, Abandon is a psychological drama rather than a thriller, a great big shaggy dog story that doesn’t quite click, but which is undeniably well made, well acted and, despite its flaws, refreshingly different in tone and style.
A confused Katie looks in vain for Embry.
Presented in the movie's theatrical 2.35:1 ratio, this very nice anamorphic transfer was commissioned by Paramount, who own the US rights to the film and whose logo is still present and accounted for at the start and end. This is a generally very effective video transfer that manages to cope well with some of Matthew Libatique’s more challenging photography - harsh contrasts, very prominent grain, strange colour balance and extreme shifts in focus seem to be his favourite things, and it all looks great on the screen. It will, however, have some people scratching their heads in places, wondering if it’s the disc’s fault. It’s not, of course (and anyway, nothing here is as full-on adventurous as the visuals in some of Libatique’s other work!)
The only major image problem from a transfer point of view is the rather excessive amount of film damage during some sequences; it’s not a frequent occurrence, but the keen-eyed will easily spot the various scratches, nicks and bits of dust that crop up from time to time. Some may object to the level of edge enhancement used on this transfer, but in this case it does seem to suit the material well. There aren’t any compression problems - and nor should there be, as a dual-layer disc has been used and the film encoded at a very high bitrate. The layer change is well placed and was extremely quickly navigated by our usually slothful review player.
Katie's impersonation of a DVDnet reviewer at 4am.
A Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is the soundtrack of choice here (well, it’s your only choice if English is the only language you speak!) and it’s a pretty decent mix without being anything earth-shattering. Dialogue is generally clean and clear (with a couple of exceptions early in the piece) and while the mix is fairly front-oriented there are some nice moments of immersive surround. Clint Mansell’s score also makes its way into the rear channels on occasion, though not to the extent his Requiem for a Dream work did.
In the US, this one’s released on DVD by Paramount Home Video, who provided a commentary track from Stephen Gaghan, a 22-minute featurette, six deleted scenes and two trailers. This R2/R4 version, sadly, offers none of that - all that’s accessible here from the spiffy animated menus is a set of cast and crew biographies, nothing more.
An interesting attempt at taking a familiar genre and muting it to the point where it takes on the qualities of a dream (albeit a rather melodramatic one), Abandon is an interesting, stylish but ultimately unsatisfying directorial debut for Gaghan. There’s still much to like here, but something’s missing; perhaps the film’s intriguing air of detachment was taken a little too far.
Buena Vista’s DVD presents the movie extremely well, but skimps on all the extras - probably a rights issue, but a shame nonetheless.