Add an “ed” suffix to the title, ponder the marketing catch line “Watch Who You Leave Behind,” and you’ll learn all you need to know about “Abandon.” Directorial debut by Stephen Gaghan, who won a best screenwriting Oscar for “Traffic,” is a passably interesting psychological study of emotionally wounded characters until it commits dramatic suicide by showing its true colors as a tricked-up “Fatal Attraction” wannabe. Pic’s structure and last-minute disclosures entirely betray any personal investment the viewer has made in this low-key yarn, which will cause auds to feel ambushed and sullied at fadeout. Par’s expertise in selling this sort of femme-oriented thriller could generate some opening biz, but this is a weak sister entry in the genre overall.
Given the widespread knowledge, circa “Traffic,” of Gaghan’s own trials and tribulations struggling back from substance abuse and life crises, it’s easy to detect personal points of interest for him in all the major characters in his loose adaptation of Sean Desmond’s book “Adam’s Fall.” The leading character is a first-rate college student haunted by her memories of a vanished first boyfriend, a rich, flamboyant genius type with an unshakable orphan complex, and the cop looking into the latter’s disappearance is an alcoholic in the tentative first stages of recovery. Even the supporting characters are loaded with insecurities and personal problems to an unusual degree.
These issues dominate the early stages of this cool, agreeably muted melodrama, which is almost entirely set at what’s meant to be a leading Ivy League-type school but was shot at McGill U. in Montreal. To ease him back into his job on the force, detective Wade Handler (Benjamin Bratt) is given a lingering case to look into, that of Embry Larkin (Charlie Hunnam), heir to a fortune, dilettante explorer and theatrical provocateur, who went missing without a trace just before graduation two years earlier.
Wade’s first interviews with the young man’s then-girlfriend, Katie (Katie Holmes), are gentle, tentative and unrevealing, but they trigger in her disturbing visions of Embry, with whom she lost her virginity and who created an air of daring and excitement (not to mention arrogance and pretentiousness) that she’s since found in no other guys. Now approaching graduation herself, Katie finds these memory flashbacks a hindrance to finishing her thesis and focusing on her future, which, if she wants it, lies with a tony corporation you just don’t say no to.
Adding to the film’s initial appeal is Katie’s intelligence: She’s far more articulate than her other student friends, including her coarse roommate, Samantha (Zooey Deschanel), and the squishy Harrison (Gabriel Mann), who has a forlorn crush on her. Given her confidence, maturity and lack of common student indulgences, Katie is burdened only by her lingering hurt and moroseness over having been abandoned, first by her father at an early age, then by her first love; it’s not for nothing that Gaghan and cinematographer Matthew Libatique have draped the proceedings in an unvarying veil of blue.
After an initial 40 minutes so relatively naturalistic for this sort of fare as to risk boring attention span-challenged auds, pic delivers the first indication that it has something else up its sleeve when Katie catches eyes that appear to be Embry’s spying on her in the library. The jumps between past, present and what may or may not be fantasy occupy matters to an increasing extent, as does the growing intimacy between Katie and Wade, whose demons become more pronounced.
Unfortunately, things come to a head in a university gothic-haunted-house kind of way that’s followed by disclosures bound to be rejected by anyone who’s even moderately engaged with the story’s psychological and emotional reality. Only at the end does “Abandon” fully admit that it’s one of “those” films, a suspenser so constructed as to try to hide as long as possible its true colors as a sicko psychopath shocker; at this “revelation,” the internal groans of disgust were palpably manifest at the preview screening.
Enjoyable company at first due to her smart manner, Holmes’ Katie becomes progressively uncompanionable as things deteriorate, personally and dramatically. Furthermore, she’s done no great favors by lenser Libatique, who here, as he has in the likes of “Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream” and “Tigerland,” displays skill at creating a heavily textured visual world but doesn’t light performers to attractive advantage.
Bratt softly indicates the precariousness of the equilibrium his cop has regained, but just when his character assumes greater depth, the film goes off in another direction.
Hunnam, perhaps best known for the British version of TV’s “Queer as Folk” and upcoming in the title role of “Nicholas Nickleby,” projects flair and a sexy Brad Pitt look as the elusive Embry.
Supporting characters are well drawn to create strong impressions with brief moments of screen time. Notable among them are three men with repressed desires for Katie: her so-called close friend Harrison, the slick fellow who recruits her to the corporation (Mark Feuerstein) and her thoroughly dishonorable shrink (Tony Goldwyn). Deschanel’s untogether Samantha serves as a good foil to set off Katie’s distinctive qualities, while Melanie Jayne Lynskey does some self-conscious scene stealing as an obnoxious go-between.
Most notable craft element is Clint Mansell’s darkly supportive score, which subtly creates an ominously turbulent mood while intelligently avoiding the current cliches of mainstream soundtracks.