Hot Guys And Homophobia Fuel 'Drown'
Australian film won six awards at FilmOut
"Priscilla Queen of the Desert" (1994)
"Boys Don't Cry" (1999)
"A Single Man" (2009)
"Drown" premiered in San Diego earlier this year at FilmOut where it won six awards including Best Narrative Feature, Best Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Soundtrack and Outstanding Artistic Achievement.
"Drown" (opening Friday at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas) is a difficult film to watch but for all the right reasons. It’s structured like almost like a horror film, building a sense of dread as it moves toward what feels like inevitable violence.
The opening scene places us in the water with Len and we know the title of the film is "Drown," so together that conveys an oppressive, suffocating weight like water closing in as we sink into the ocean unable to breath.
And that’s where the film starts.
The film returns to the ocean and Len’s experience with a drowning woman to let us glimpse the humanity that still struggles to survive in Len. But hate comes more easily to Len and his dissatisfaction with what life has handed him makes him prone to jealousy and violence.
Len’s a lifeguard, a five-time Iron man champion, and an alpha male with low self-esteem. It’s not that he’s an entirely bad guy but he doesn’t have any good role models to set him on a better path than the one he’s on. The result is that his only sense of worth comes from being a lifeguard and winning an annual competition, outside of that, he’s nothing.
He works at a garbage dump, has few friends, and his father abused him and provided him with a very narrow definition of what being a man meant. So Len is a young man with few prospects for the future and a desperate lack of hope, and that’s a breeding ground for hate and anger. It also makes him dangerous.
Enter Phil (Jack Matthews), a new lifeguard whose confidence and ease makes Len jealous. The dread builds from the fact that the story begins essentially at the end as Len and his lackey, Meat, take a drunken Phil out to the beach one night after Phil has dethroned Len in the Iron man competition.
Everything about the scene fills us with great apprehension. Phil’s drunken state makes him helpless and an easy victim, and Len’s instructions to Meat (Harry Cook) sound ominous. But even when nothing bad is happening on screen, the music continues to heighten the tension as if it were driving Len toward an emotional and physical confrontation.
The film is based on a stage play by Stephen Davis, and is directed, co-written, shot and edited by Dean Francis.
Everything Francis does ratchets up the tension. He takes a non-linear approach to telling his story and chooses to set it against sunny Australian beaches where we are occasionally distracted from the tension by hunky guys running around in speedos.
"Drown" turns into a homoerotic exploration of homophobia and bullying. What seems to anger Len the most is not so much that Phil is gay but that Phil is comfortable and confident in his own sexuality. Comfort and confident are two things Len has little experience with.
At the film’s center is Matt Levett’s intense performance as Len. We can’t look away because he rivets us to the screen and compels us to see how far Len will take his bullying. The film mostly takes his subjective point of view, allowing us to get into his head to hear his thoughts, which occasionally reveal his vulnerability but mostly provide insights into his prejudices and twisted perception of reality.
"Drown" is not free of stereotypes and that hinders it at times. But it is a film made with such ferocious intensity that it’s can’t be dismissed or ignored.
The trio of actors — Levett, Jack Matthews, and Harry Cook — anchors the film with compelling performances.
And Francis crafts the film with the kind of single-minded focus that pulls us in like a rip tide. It’s rough and you’ll want to swim to calmer waters when it’s done. But it’s well worth the challenge.