It’s telling that Bette Gordon’s The Drowning explains its title almost before it even begins, allowing us no room to take the film in and slowly realize where it will lead. Is this gradual piecing together not, after all, what drives thrillers? This will be, the first sequence seems to tell us, the kind of work that announces its genre aspirations in the most explicit yet least Brechtian of ways and delivers its morality from the characters’ very mouths, with the verbatim clarity of the most precise of academic theses: “We are all of us killers, Tom.” Dr. Tom Seymour (Josh Charles), a forensic psychologist who dresses like a hedge fund manager, and his decorative wife, Lauren (Julia Stiles), are enjoying life by a river when they witness a beautiful stranger, Danny (Avan Jogia), attempt suicide. As Danny theatrically jumps into the water, Tom, a self-described fantastic swimmer, is quick to save him—though it’s Lauren who gender-appropriately gives the young man the kiss of life.
The following day, Lauren is still haunted by the almost-drowning. For Tom, though, it was just another day at the office. It turns out that Danny isn’t a stranger after all, but Tom’s former patient who stood accused of murder as a child—a backstory we’re told multiple times through newspaper clippings from the time of the scandal, as well as through character witnesses who Tom interviews. Danny never forgave Tom for rendering an opinion that apparently helped convict him and has come back to haunt the doctor and his already on-the-rocks relationship with the gullible Lauren, who sees no harm in Danny’s stalking attitude and forced interactions with the couple.
Bette Gordon’s film proffers the East Coast couple as an inevitably miserable institution without really meaning to.
Besides being embarrassingly formulaic and marred by equivocated notions around trauma as a kind of madness, the film is an offensively uncritical portrait of a privileged couple whose life consists of avoiding sex, emotions at all costs, and deciding whether it’s best to live in the city or country. Either way, husband and wife are sure to never agree on anything—him with his important affairs that demand all of his time away from domesticity, her with her frivolous dreams about making it in the art world. Tom is never there, and Lauren is happy to make up for his absence (a result of his unquestionable greatness) by being incredibly understanding, all while managing her fertility cycle and keeping her anxieties about not getting pregnant in check. In the meantime, Tom is uninterested in Lauren’s painting techniques (she melts and irons beeswax and resin on canvas), her upcoming gallery show, her family planning, her body, or her opinions, which the film depicts as always stupid.
If there’s anything worth mulling over about The Drowning, it isn’t its faux suspense or the insipid secrets of the characters, and certainly not Anton Sanko’s incessant score, but the way it proffers the East Coast couple as an inevitably miserable institution without really meaning to, or without realizing how nightmarish its presentation of a regular couple going through a rough patch actually is. Gordon’s film goes out of its way to portray Tom and Lauren’s gender-power relations in this way only to accept said relations as the unfortunate precondition or price one has to pay for male virtuosity.