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Hot Guys And Homophobia Fuel ‘Drown’

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"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" is a difficult film to watch but for all the right reasons.

Welcome back, I’m Beth Accomando and this is the Cinema Junkie podcast film review of Drown.

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 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 towards what feels like inevitable violence. Just listen to the film’s opening lines and the soundscape it creates.

CLIP You ever think about the end of the world… everyone dies, I survive, little me.

That’s Len, the main character. I’m glad you are just listening to this clip so you can appreciate the sounds and the music, which contribute significantly to the sense of tension and unease. 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, a new lifeguard whose confidence and ease makes Len jealous.

CLIP Don’t you want to humiliate him? Don’t you think taking his clothes off is the best way to humiliate him?

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 sound ominous.

CLIP Dig deeper, much deeper.

Of course this makes us think why? What the hell do you have in mind? Why deeper? What are you going to do? Then the film cuts back to when Phil first arrives. But even when nothing bad is happening, 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.

Clip showers

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.

I’m Beth Accomando, your resident Cinema Junkie. Thanks for listening to my podcast review of Drown that opens tomorrow at Landmark in San Diego. By subscribing to the Cinema Junkie Podcast on iTunes you’ll get longer, more in depth film reviews than what you hear on air at KPBS. Plus every Friday I’ll post interviews. Tomorrow you can catch the second part of my interview with Oscar winning actor George Chakiris. I spoke with him in person and without hammers and saws going at the old globe. You can find out what it was like for him to work with Marilyn Monroe. Plus I’ll have a geek roundtable session with my friend Miguel Rodriguez of Horrible imaginings. We sat down to discuss Universal monsters for a film series we are hosting as part of the film geeks at the digital gym cinema called the universal suspects. There is a screening this Sunday of Abbot and Costello Meet the Mummy and The Mummy’s Ghost. Miguel’s horrible imaginings film festival is also coming up soon and we’ll talk in depth about that in September. So thanks for listening and if you like what you hear, please post a review on iTunes or give me feedback on Twitter at Cinebeth or on the Cinema Junkie Facebook page.

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Cinema Junkie

Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place