First time director Stephen Gaghan (who wrote Traffic) says that he wanted to make a movie about “college students under far too much pressure” (The New York Times 8 September 2002). You might see some of that movie in Abandon, as it occasionally treats its young protagonists with some measure respect, allowing that they have concerns beyond parties, sex, and romance. Unfortunately, more often than not, the film lapses into basic thriller tricks, distracting from its gloomily convoluted visuals and focus on a particularly weird college-induced crisis.
At the center of Abandon is November’s Cosmopolitan cover girl and Movieline‘s most recent designate as “Hollywood’s Jackpot Star,” Katie Holmes. Surely, she’s due to break out, having done her time on Dawson’s Creek, and survived the high school horror movie Disturbing Behavior, as well as a couple of pretty-girl parts in The Gift and Wonder Boys. Coincidentally, Dawson (James Van Der Beek) is having his own breakout moment just now, playing the odious college student Sean Bateman in The Rules of Attraction. But truth be told, Holmes’ Catherine Burke (Katie to her friends) brings more pain than bad boy Sean might even imagine.
As Abandon begins, Katie is about to graduate from a small New England college (actual location: McGill University in Montreal). And, as usually happens on such occasion, all Katie’s long-festering “issues” are coming to a head. Her thesis is due and she’s having nightmares about her father leaving her when she was three (these stark and snowy scenes offer one angle on the film’s title, though there are others, including the “abandon” she thinks she should be feeling as she looks out on a future so full of conventional promise). She has a hugely important and much-coveted job interview, to which she’s been invited by a sleezy male executive, and she’s seeing a shrink, Dr. Dave (Tony Goldwyn), who’s acting too cozy, leaning in toward her and looking deeply into her eyes, just before he writes her a scrip after three minutes of conversation.
On top of all this, a local detective, the awkwardly named Wade Handler (Benjamin Bratt), appears on campus, asking questions about the mysterious disappearance of Katie’s boyfriend Embry (Charlie Hunnam, of the U.K. Queer As Folk). Just why the investigation is re-opening at this moment is not so clear, as Embry disappeared two years ago when Joey — er, Katie — was a wide-eyed, hopeful sophomore, crushed by the fact that he never sent for her as he promised he would. Embry is somewhat notorious around campus. A wealthy, self-loving genius-poet-performer-archeologist-musician-whatever-else he decides to be, he disappeared on the night of his last campus performance, “Trip Hop Inferno.” Most folks presume he took off for Europe or some exotic land, to spend his trust fund or seek the meaning of life. Or maybe he’s dead. He hasn’t tapped his trust fund, so Townie Cop comes calling.
Handler’s questions have Katie feeling murky and frazzled, igniting flashbacks galore, some seemingly related to Handler, but others perhaps not. In these, Embry appears significantly less magnetic-rockstar-ish than everyone seems to think him, more obviously twitty and pretentious; such characteristics are, admittedly, hard to see when you’re a sophomore. Katie recalls her first encounter with Embry, as he directs her in a chorus for one of his brilliant creations, zeroing in on her voice among the many, as a means to teach the group a lesson, namely, as he has them repeatedly yell: “I am the infantile center of the goddamn universe.”
This speaks volumes about Embry’s self-love, but Katie sees it as a sign of his genius, and looks suitably stricken as he gazes on her. Next flashback, he’s in her room, rummaging through the contents of her backpack. Determining that she’s a virgin because she’s so hyper-organized, he tosses her planner and her finance textbook out the window, and instructs her to make use of her voice: she should sing, he says, though there’s not a lot of evidence that she does it well. And then he has her up against the wall, introducing her to the immeasurable pleasures of sex with himself.
Bothered by these memories — which may or may not be shaped by lingering desires — Katie does her best to hold it together, only leaving the library where she toils into wee hours on her thesis when her friends drag her out. These are stock college movie friends: the scene-stealing roommate Sam (Zooey Deschanel), dorm neighbor and only black girl on campus Amanda (Gabrielle Union), and dedicated anti-corporate-globalism activist Harrison (Gabriel Mann). His major crush on our girl knows no limits, as he absorbs disses on a regular basis, as when Katie dismisses his politics. “Anti-globalism? You might as well stop oxygen or the sun coming up.” Cynical and beautiful. No wonder the boys can’t resist her.
This seems to go double for the hapless detective, who packs all kinds of vulnerabilities. For some reason, just when he’s coming back to work after some “time off” to deal with his alcoholism, his lieutenant (Fred Ward) puts him on the missing kid case. As he’s interviewing people who knew Embry, he’s increasingly focused on Katie, dreamily ignoring warnings from Mousy Julie (credited as such, and played by perpetual good sport Melanie Lynsky) and about 12 other characters: “They think it’s a coltish vulnerability,” observes Mousy Julie of Katie’s charm, “The pea-brain says she’s in need of saving.” This pea-brain persists.
Then again, he’s only about as obtuse and misdirected as everyone else on screen. Sam “jokingly” accuses him of stalking Katie, then asks him up for a drink (“Bad Samantha!” she scolds herself); and Harrison acts out his jealousy of Katie’s mutual interest in the cop by telling her he loves her: her rejection is cold as they come.
This is an old device, of course: like Dana Andrews in Laura, perhaps, or Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, the detective falls for the chilly, visibly dangerous object of his investigation. Only this time, she’s half his age and very clearly unhinged. Not a good or even very believable thing to do.
Katie’s unhinging takes a trite and specific form: she starts seeing Embry on campus, at which point the plot descends quickly into nonsense. She heads into the requisite nearby scary abandoned building without a second thought. She cowers in her bed with the covers up to her chin when someone comes pounding at her dorm room door, then does nothing about it: no reports to school security or to the cop. She starts writing furious, cryptic notes to herself (“I have no grace”), and starts dropping by Handler’s apartment late at night, to tell him she’s “just afraid” of Embry. And it’s a very strange thing that no one else notices Embry skulking about, given that he’s something of a local legend.
Such illogic can certainly be forgiven, even useful. Slasher movies, after all, rarely make strict rational sense, but they can be metaphorically rich, viscerally effective, even politically provocative. At its best, Abandon is clever and ambitious, insidiously drawing you inside Katie’s troubled, “under pressure” mind (or out of it: check the corpse’s point of view from the bottom of a conveniently located and never-before noted pool of water, for instance). But where the film’s inconsistency of tone and perspective is occasionally challenging, it eventually just feels like cheating.