This is an odd mess (as opposed to a hot mess) of a film. It marked the directorial debut of Stephen Gaghan, after scripting William Friedkin’s Rules of Engagement (2000) and Steven Soderbergh’s version of Traffic (2000), and before his better-known writer-director effort, Syriana (2005). As a “youth movie” of sorts, Abandon has more in common with another Gaghan script, for Barbara Kopple’s equally odd Havoc (2005) – and almost nothing in common with his “global politics” action dramas, apart from an abiding and never particularly grounded element of general hysteria, played a bit cooler than at standard Oliver Stone temperature.
Inspiration for Abandon came from a book apparently probing the problem of stress (of all kinds) among overachieving university students, vying for corporate jobs, aiming for the best grades, blablabla. Accordingly, various reviews took that as the principal theme of the movie – whereas, in fact, it seems hardly to register at all, except as a recurring plot detail or alibi. Yes, Katie (Katie Holmes) spends her late nights and early mornings in the campus library, in hope of finishing her (very vaguely defined) PhD. But that’s only the set-up for various drop-ins from fellow students, such as neurotic, hair-twisting “Mousy Julie” (that’s Melanie Lynskey’s official credit), best foul-mouthed buddy Samantha (Zooey Deschanel, way pre-New Girl), a gaggle of nerdy others who just want to party before school daze are all out forever – and especially the spooky visitations from someone who may be her departed ex-boyfriend, the precocious Brit genius Embry Larkin (Charlie Hunnam).
We shall return to the genius factor. First, the oddness of the plot and its construction at a fundamental level, that really seems to have got right out of Gaghan’s fledgling control. It’s one of those movies that has trouble finding – even on Wikipedia – its exact label; it gets tagged, queerly, a “psychological thriller drama”. The psychology is in the stress and the “abandonment complex” that Kate suffers (in blinding white childhood flashbacks to Papa!); the thrills are nowhere to be seen or experienced. If anything, it’s more of a mystery story. And the mystery is the sudden disappearance, two years back, of Embry. Where did he go, what did he do? Is he dead or alive? Did he drop out, is he overseas still living his solitary, visionary genius?
But then, Abandon keeps performing like it’s a crime story – and yet it involves (as far as we can tell at the outset, anyhow) no crime, no violent act. The enigma of someone’s disappearance is not necessarily a crime. I say the film performs or behaves like a crime story because, in traditional fashion, Gaghan keeps parading heavily announced suspects at us: this weird guy, that crazy girl, etc. This is virtually every character, in fact, doe-eyed Katie/Holmes (almost post-Dawson’s Creek but pre-Tom Cruise) included. There is even an investigative, alcoholic cop (Benjamin Bratt as Wade Handler), now on the wagon, who has a perverse inter-vibe with Katie (as did her official psychoanalyst!) – so perverse that even Samantha tries to get in on the “bad” (her word), inappropriate sex-action. Yet what is it we are meant to be suspecting all these weirdos of doing? Every one of them seems, jealous, resentful, frustrated … about something or other, perhaps the idyllic, erotic, once-upon-a-time love of Katie & Embry. Things start getting murky with all this unfocused suspicion simply “in the air” everywhere.
Then there is a game with time, and it got me actively confused as I watched Abandon – and not for the first time, by the way (I had already psychosomatically blotted out a long-ago DVD viewing). The confusion especially congregates upon the thankless character of lovestruck Harrison Hobart (Gabriel Mann) – these names! – who has (or had) an unrequited thing for Katie. He was that way two years ago, and he’s still that way today, as the story begins its rollout … I think. Because there’s a moment where HH goes missing – another disappearance! But did that happen somewhere in the two-year span, or is it happening now? There’s a hesitation, juiced by the narrative, because Embry himself is popping up in Katie’s present-tense … or is he?? I will go no further into spoiling the crazy denouement (which will be very evident to some viewers from a very long way off). Anyhow, the insane thing is that we never discover what happened to Harrison. I expected to find multiple webpages devoted to this mystery – What Became of Harrison Hobart? – but, alas, the boiling-point is long past for this particular fan-cult, if indeed it ever existed. In short, this is a film that does not manage its deliberate plot confusions – as usual, dependent on certain characters’ subjective disturbances and POV problems – at all well.
The genius: Embry Larkin. Is there anything he can’t do? He’s primarily a composer – also inflamed conductor of his own choral works (he picks Katie out of an anonymous line of singers, and arouses her to vocal greatness – she needs to abandon herself to Dionysus, you see). He has astonishing, even uncanny psychological acuity: he susses to Katie’s virginity in an instant! He’s also a theatre/performance art guy, creator of an underground masterpiece – literally underground, under the official stage! – entitled Trip Hop Inferno (I do not fabricate, or exaggerate). Embry joins a long line of Wack Artists Of The Movies that I tabulated up to 1993 here. But he’s also something of a conceptual fellow, an artful Punk, a Hollywood/Harvard Situationist: since, on the very eve of his own disappearance, he dares to tell his rapt audience, in an opening address (caught on a streaky-blurry student video, naturally), that they are mediocre and should just all piss off! Such provocation and transgression in a mainstream movie! Such a dangerous frisson of … well, abandon.
“Psychological thrillers” are always looking for these
sorts of frisson-lines (they especially did so in the 20 years preceding 2002);
it’s a pity that Gaghan didn’t stick to the performance-art case for his
inaugural, highly self-conscious bow as auteur.
© Adrian Martin 5 January 2020