by Skyler Goodman
Three films stuck out to me at the Austin Film Festival: Drowning, written and directed by Melora Walters; Undertow, written and directed by Miranda Nation; and Wade in the Water, written by Chris Retts and directed by Mark Wilson. The connection between these films goes beyond their water-themed titles. They all attempt to deal with obsession and how it drives the main character to lose touch with reality. Each film tries to establish the audience’s understanding of this obsession through various cinematographic techniques, but find different levels of success. Wade in the Water was the most successful at communicating this descent into obsession. The film incorporates interesting and unique devices, but the audience is never distracted for the sake of an effect. Undertow and Drowning also have some interesting elements, but their cinematic techniques tend to take away from the storytelling instead of complementing it.
Undertow is a film about Claire, a woman who recently had a miscarriage and the stress it puts on her relationship with her husband Dan. The hook of the film is Claire’s obsession with Angie, a young girl who is pregnant and somehow familiar with Dan. Nation tells the story through a straightforward narrative, though she is not afraid to indulge in symbolism. Mirrors are everywhere in Undertow. Scenes often involve multiple mirrors or other reflective surfaces, and from the very beginning, it is clear that the film will revolve around Claire’s distorted perception of herself and the world around her.
The film’s insistent inclusion of mirrors climaxes in a shot of Claire staring out of a window. We can only see the window and the street outside. Focus is pulled on the reflection of Claire’s face, and the shallow depth of field stops the background from distracting us. In this brief moment, we see Claire’s face morph into Angie’s face, a sign that Claire’s obsession has evolved into the belief that she, in some way, is Angie.
This shot is a novel visual device, but it feels artificial. It plays as if Nation wrote the scene to show off the effect. This moment is unnecessary for the audience’s understanding. At this point in the film, Claire’s obsession is implied through other elements of filmmaking that are less invasive. For example, Claire climbs next to Angie in the bed of Angie’s motel room and strokes her pregnant stomach as if it were her own, she staples Claire’s ultrasound next to a picture of her deceased child, and there is a bizarre hallucinated masturbation scene where Claire sees Angie in the bathroom with her.
Despite its shortcomings, Undertow has good ideas. It wants to tell a story through a unique visual design. There are various issues with continuity, sound design, and dialogue that disrupt the experience. Sound design is a large part of the film’s process. Claire frequently endures auditory hallucinations, and the audience is often subjected to them through strange sound effects. These effects attempt to put the audience into Claire’s world, but they are unsuccessful.
The effort to enhance a story with strongly cinematic techniques is admirable. However, Nation does not execute these ideas consistently, and as a result these directorial flourishes don’t always fit with the rest of the film. In other words, Undertow is unable to adequately develop its vernacular. It is in a perpetual flow of indecision between a daytime television show and an extremely symbolic art film. If a future version of Undertow can execute a consistent aesthetic, it will be well received.
Drowning follows Rose, an anxious mother whose anxieties are only growing now that her son is fighting in Iraq. The film’s color palette stands out from Wade in the Water and Undertow. At the post-show Q-and-A, Melora Walters — who wrote, directed, and starred in the film — mentioned that this was a conscious decision intended to represent how Rose feels in different spaces. The color grading shifts throughout the film. It is sometimes the cliché teal and orange like Undertow and Wade in the Water, but it also changes to a natural and warm look inside of the bookstore where Rose works. For most of the film, the color is a starkly desaturated red and teal. This grade is reminiscent of the two-strip Technicolor process from the early 20th century. The light was filtered through a red filter and a green filter onto two strips of black and white film. This was a popular way to achieve a color film, albeit with limited hues. Martin Scorsese also replicated this look for his film, The Aviator.
Formally, the colors are successful in communicating how Rose is feeling, but such a drastic color grade is a delicate process for digital footage. Without optimal lighting and equipment, there are often strange color artifacts that can seriously distract from its formal purpose. This problem is similar to Undertow’s issue with sound design. These are two ideas with the potential for strong formal storytelling that require a consistent and polished execution to be effective.
The best scene in Drowning comes towards the end of the film when Rose is fighting with her partner Frank. She sits on the couch in a familiar wide shot that we have seen throughout the film. The two characters often talk or relax with each other here. However, they are no longer on good terms. What makes this scene effective is the lighting: it is almost completely dark, but there are two diegetic lights, a warm lamp in the frame to the left, and a cold blue light coming through a doorway on the right. As the two characters are fighting, they move in and out of this light. Their legibility is constantly shifting and chaotic. This scene is beautiful, and almost like a dance. It is shot on a tripod with no cuts and no camera movement. This is a clear example of Walter’s inspiration from Frederico Fellini, which she acknowledged at the Q&A session. She mentioned Fellini’s film La Strada as an inspiration to both the lighting and Rose’s character.
The above scene from Drowning is a perfect example of how it and Undertow could improve if either of these films were able to consistently execute their styles. They could express their stories with greater clarity through a polished vision. Drowning is a film with great potential to create unique visual storytelling, but it fails to commit with enough fervor and experience to make it convincing. Consistent execution of a solid formal language and style makes Wade in the Water stand out from these two films.
Wade in the Water is about “Our Man,” as he is billed in the credits. Our Man is an obese man in his 30’s who spends his days watching old cowboy movies and listening to gospel music. He is accidentally mailed a DVD containing graphic images of children and sets out on a mission to kill the pedophile who was supposed to receive it. The climactic moment of the kill happens surprisingly early in the film. The real story is the unlikely camaraderie that emerges between Our Man and Tilly, the pedophile’s teenage daughter.
The film quickly establishes a concise visual language that flows with the story instead of being ornamental. One of the first shots is a dolly out of Wade’s mailbox. It begins with only his box in the frame, but as the frame expands, we see an endless wall of uniform numbers. The audience is immediately able to understand how Our Man feels: trapped in a box. Our Man does not have a cubicle job. He works from home and answers the phone for an insurance company. He only leaves his house to go to his favorite restaurant and check the mail. There is a feeling of being squeezed throughout the film. Our Man cannot comfortably fit into most spaces, and neither can the audience. The film uses his small apartment, car, and restaurant of choice to make these issues stand out.
Presence and absence are two key concepts of this film. Some of the most impactful shots are ones that come back with key elements or characters missing from their normal places. After Our Man and Tilly’s friendship is ruined, his apartment becomes even more lifeless than it was in the beginning. One of the final shots in the film shows Tilly and Our Man sitting next to each other in a police station as he waits to turn himself in. There is an incredible feeling when we see Tilly sitting alone after Our Man leaves the frame. Her small form cannot hope to fill up space without him sitting beside her. The cinematography creates a fun dynamic between the two characters. The film deals with deeply dark ideas but deals with them in a physical and comedic way. There is a wonderful training montage in the first half of the film, and it works very well. It’s amusing to see Our Man throw away the old pizzas in his fridge and replace them with random vegetables that he will never cook.
The magic of Wade in the Water is the story. It never chooses style over substance and instead uses style for substance. It appears to be a simply shot film without too much decoration, but the film has an exact and constant vision of what it wants to show the audience. It stands out from Undertow and Drowning because while those films also approach isolated and obsessed characters, there is always a sound or a visual that takes the audience out of the film. Drowning and Undertow have plenty of interesting shots and strong stylistic choices. The problems arise when those choices do not serve the plot of the film and instead exist outside of it. The filmmakers of Wade in the Water do not try to do everything. They chose a specific set of tools and used them very well.