There is a certain shot that’s so emblematic of a type of twisty, dark-secrets-of-the-past thriller that it could be used as the header image for the genre’s section on Netflix. In the blue low-contrast light of deep night, a camera pans across tousled bedclothes to find a couple in an embrace. The woman is in profile, nestled in the crook of the man’s neck, asleep. The man is facing the camera and his eyes are open. There is Something On His Mind. Does he have a dark secret in his past?
When that shot occurs about 50 minutes into “The Drowning,” the film adaptation of acclaimed novelist Pat Barker’s “Border Crossing,” its familiarity simply confirms the generally uninspired tone of the proceedings. In fact, the film’s biggest surprise may come when the credits roll to reveal that this almost perfectly bland, low-intensity mystery is directed by New York indie scene veteran Bette Gordon. Her earlier features, such as 1983’s “Variety” or 2009’s “Handsome Harry,” were designed as provocative investigations into the nature of gender roles and sexuality; the only thing the pureed anonymity of “The Drowning” provokes is fidgety impatience.
Tom Seymour (Josh Charles) is a successful child psychologist who lives in New London, Conn., with his artist wife Lauren (Julia Stiles). On a walk together they spot a young man apparently trying to commit suicide by jumping off a pier, and Tom unhesitatingly dives in to save him. They drag him out and resuscitate him, but it’s not until sometime later, when he is recuperating in hospital, that Tom realizes they’re acquainted. He is Danny Miller (Avan Jogia, whose broody charisma makes him the film’s MVP), newly released from prison where he’d been serving time for murder, largely due to Tom’s testimony at his trial. It soon becomes clear that their encounter was no coincidence, when the volatile Danny turns up on Tom’s doorstep, befriending the oblivious Lauren and causing Tom to revisit the 12-year-old case.
Whatever suspense it musters feels artificial, manufactured in the first half by withholding information all the characters already possess from the audience, and in the second by adding more curlicues and flourishes to the elaborate plot at the expense of nourishing the milquetoast characters. In fact, it is mildly impressive just how much plot Gordon and her writers Stephen Molton and “House of Cards” showrunner Frank Pugliese manage to cram into 98 minutes, but there are a few knife-twists that might have been better edited out.
The low-stakes conflict between Tom and Lauren (they’re trying for a child; her art career takes her to New York frequently, where her acquaintance with younger art world types inspires Tom’s jealousy) doesn’t require the addition of an infidelity subplot that seems shoehorned in just to supply a minor gotcha moment later on. The oddly motivated character of Danny’s parole officer (Tracie Thoms) is both over-egged, in her borderline unprofessional interest in her charge, and underused. Still, in the wasted performer stakes she can’t hold a candle to John C. McGinley as the lawyer who successfully prosecuted Danny; he has just two scenes, neither of them particularly illuminating. And the further addition of sketched-in characters such as Danny’s father and a teacher who apparently fell under the boy’s spell way back when, makes the second half of the film, where it’s trying to seem dark and labyrinthine, feel simply overcrowded.
The formal, stylistic choices, while solidly unobjectionable across the board, are perhaps part of the problem. Radium Cheung’s tasteful but rather bloodless camerawork fails to add much punch in terms of memorable imagery, and along with Anton Sanko’s unobtrusive, understated score, it contributes to the film’s smoothly impersonal, Teflon sheen. And so while the ideas the film wants to plumb run deep — child psychopathy, the nature of evil, the sins of the past — their treatment here is all surface. It means “The Drowning” is serviceable enough as the delivery mechanism for a twisty, not entirely credible plot — one can drown in less than two inches of water, after all. But it remains far too shallow for full immersion in the tantalizingly troubled, murky currents beneath.