Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:39 - Released 10/18/02

Screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, who got his start writing for TV shows like NYPD Blue and The Practice before penning such notable recent films as Rules Of Engagement and Traffic, takes the director’s chair for the first time with his latest script, Abandon. A thriller of unconventional depth, it tells the story of a young woman trying to finish up her thesis at an exclusive (unnamed) college while plagued by visions of her missing ex-lover, who disappeared two years ago. Like Gaghan’s other works, it contains numerous characters who are more complex than they would normally be; even the bit players seem to have a life beyond their appearances on the screen. The film’s star, Katie Holmes, acquits herself well with a difficult part; co-stars Benjamin Bratt and Charlie Hunnam are adequate in supporting roles, but it is writer-director Gaghan whose style makes the movie enjoyably visceral. Utilizing interesting musical choices, strange sound effects, and quasi-surrealistic lighting and camera angles, he creates an atmosphere which may or may not be reality, or may only be the reality of one or another character.

Holmes plays Katie Burke, an intelligent, career-driven finance student completing her final, pressure-filled weeks of school while interviewing for a job with a highly-placed New York corporation. With the help of a psychiatric counselor (Tony Goldwyn), she is trying to cope with final exams and completing her thesis, but her nerves really snap when she’s approached by Detective Wade Handler (Bratt). Wade, a recovering alcoholic with a checkered history of his own, is investigating the disappearance of Katie’s lover from sophomore year, a wealthy and artistic egomaniac named Embry Larkin (Hunnam) who disappeared shortly after purchasing plane tickets to Greece, having never used them. Wade’s questions trigger a flood of memories that undermine Katie’s ability to complete her various projects; while he talks to everyone from her roommate Samantha (Zooey Deschanel, putting forth another excellent supporting performance—I’ve yet to see her do wrong) to the mousy library assistant (Melanie Lynskey) to another boy who has a crush on Katie (Gabriel Mann), she begins seeing Embry in strange places, as if he’s stalking her. Meanwhile she begins to develop feelings for Wade that may force her to compromise her career plans.

For what I suppose must be classified as a “teen thriller,” this film has a surprising amount of substance. It does contain a twist ending which I will not reveal but which is more effective than most that I have seen. But I feel that director Gaghan’s real genius lies in his ability to create mood. There is scarcely a scene which does not contain some kind of strange feeling to it; the whole film is immersed in a kind of altered-reality sensation, aided by music, lighting, and sounds which, while they do not suggest any specific conclusions, simply evoke the general feeling of unease. Something seems not right, and as we find out in the final reel, something definitely is not right, but it is not the standard collection of conventional horror-thriller elements that make you grin and say, “Oh-oh, better not open that door!” Gaghan is able to construct a world which seems normal, but feels wrong. While Abandon is not the creepiest thriller out there right now (consult The Ring for that distinction), it is perhaps the most intelligent. ****

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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