About five minutes into Abandon, the new thriller by first-time director Stephen Gaghan, overachieving college senior Katie Burke is dragged by a friend to an on-campus job fair. They make their way to a booth run by a consulting firm just in time to hear the end of a smooth pitch delivered by a young recruiter. He’s saying something about how students at elite schools, such as the one Katie (Katie Holmes) and her friend attend, are able to live for four years within a privileged and protected circle. But once out in the real world, he warns, with all the grave wisdom of his 20-something years, they’ll find themselves “at the mercy of market forces.”
Gaghan can probably relate. He wrote a smart, ambivalent script for Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic and watched from within a different kind of protected circle as one of Hollywood’s most talented filmmakers turned it into an much-hyped picture, helping Gaghan win an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. Now, as a neophyte behind the camera as well as the scriptwriter, Gaghan has to worry about some issues he never did before—opening-weekend box office and the expectations of the 18-to-34-year-old demographic, to name two.
Those pressures weigh pretty heavily on Abandon, which winds up feeling like an awkward mix of quirky psychological case study and conventional murder mystery. You want an example of market forces? The 30-second television spots for the film show an ominously glinting hunting knife and a loaded shotgun—neither of which appears in the movie itself. In its more thoughtful and ambitious moments—of which there are quite a few, actually—the film bucks against its own commitment to the whodunit formula, in which a big twist at the end not only is compulsory but usually manages to obliterate whatever careful development of character or tone has come before.
When we first meet her, Holmes’ Katie is nearing the end of a college career at an unnamed East Coast college. (Think Dartmouth or Williams.) The only snag in a charmed four years there has been Katie’s relationship with Embry Langan (the amateurish Charlie Hunnam), a shaggy-haired campus heartthrob, the director of notorious theatrical productions, and the habitual wearer of a blazer over an untucked shirt and an insouciant grin—a young Orson Welles as reimagined by Ralph Lauren.
Embry, an orphan sitting on an enormous trust fund, disappeared from campus—and from Katie’s life—after putting on an avant-garde production called Trip-Hop Inferno, which was staged in what one of his professors breathlessly remembers as one of the “nontraditional spaces” Embry was fond of using. (Think dimly lit boiler room.) His vanishing act has left Katie rattled and confused. Still, she’s managed to hold onto her grade-point average—beating out 500 other candidates to get an offer from that consulting firm—as well as her popularity with men. In a line that’s actually smarter than it sounds, one classmate says that guys are drawn to Katie “like bugs to…well, like bugs to one of those bug-zapper things.”
As Katie sees it, the most promising bug to come along in a while is Wade Handler (Benjamin Bratt), a newly sober police detective who’s charged with wrapping up the case of Embry’s disappearance. We learn later that Wade reads Camus and Graham Greene at home and pines to leave the force to go live like Thoreau in a cabin he’s built by hand in the woods. But the way this late bloomer deals with being tossed into the campus world of precocious anti-authority types is a thread that Gaghan essentially forgets to follow.
The director has been candid about his own struggle to overcome a heroin addiction through 12-step programs, which made its way into the script for Traffic and reappears here as the film begins to sketch in the details of Detective Handler’s background. In one of Abandon’s weirdest scenes, we see Wade sitting on a plastic chair in an AA meeting. With a complete absence of emotion, he tells the group that one morning during his days of heavy drinking he woke up to find a dent, a bit of dried blood, and some brown hair on the front fender of his car. “Maybe it was a cat,” he says with a shrug.
Gaghan appears to have spent a lot of time in therapy as well as AA—or at least one might guess that from the scenes in which Katie, stressed out from trying to finish her thesis and help the detective get to the bottom of her old boyfriend’s disappearance at the same time, shows some cracks in her resolve as she sits in the office of her therapist (Tony Goldwyn). (Her problems, the film suggests, all have to do with the fact that her father abandoned the family when she was little.) The therapist responds to these revelations, of course, by coming on to her—one more bug unable to resist frying his career against her neon glow.
Holmes is an appealing presence onscreen, but she’s never really built on the promise she showed five years ago as Libbets Casey in The Ice Storm. In that film, she was the owner of a slightly subversive kind of sexual charisma contained beneath a pretty, conventional-looking shell. It would be much more satisfying to see her attempt something similarly offbeat than try to prove, as she does doggedly if mostly unsuccessfully here, that she can carry a big Hollywood movie on her slim shoulders. And if Bratt doesn’t make much an impact, it’s not really his fault: The quiet ambition of his character belongs wholly to the intelligent, nuanced movie that Gaghan gives up on about two-thirds of the way through. Playing both Katie’s love interest and her father figure, as Gaghan’s Freudian script requires Bratt to do, can’t be easy. The result is a love story doubly damned, weighed down by pop psychology and dampened by the too-steady competence of the leads.
As a mystery, Abandon is even less successful. Its final scenes take place, predictably, in an about-to-be demolished dorm. Though the building has been empty for just two years, it has conveniently decayed into a Piranesian landscape where water drips from every ceiling and every floor threatens to give way underfoot, and where Wade’s sweeping flashlight cuts dramatic arcs through the darkness. It’s the perfect setting for the movie’s crucial twist to be revealed, but Gaghan, sad to say, handles the big moment as if he’s been there a million times before. CP