Flexing its tale of a man caught between masculinity and homosexuality, Dean Francis’s Drown is overturned by an overwrought history of self-hate and hopelessness.
Buriedby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
With nearly 85% of Australia’s population living within 50 kilometres of the coast, it’s perhaps no surprise that Dean Francis’ film on queer masculinity should feature a swimmer (and life guard) struggling against the tide of expectation. But following hot on the heels of Karim Aïnouz’s Futuro Beach and Tomasz Wasilewski’s Floating Skyscrapers (and even Andrew Haigh’s Weekend), Drown reveals a peculiarly gay obsession with swimming. Of course, there’s the immediate win of virtually naked, toned young things writhing in skimpy trunks, but there’s also something very poignant about this amphibious metaphor, as water offers an alternative element for existence while our heroes thrash about in the metaphorical surf, caught between twin worlds of heterosexuality and homosexuality. And with Drown, there’s also a beautifully morbid fascination with the horizon; only here it’s not the alternative existence on offer in Praia do Futuro, but rather a siren’s call to the Great Beyond.
Len Smithy (Matt Levett) is the Iron Man champion at his local rescue station and swimming club. He’s following in his father’s footsteps, but Len has a secret even he doesn’t really understand, as his continued attempts to prove his manliness are eaten away by his secret homosexual desires. A seething mass of conflicting emotion, Len’s predicament comes to a head when Phil (Jack Matthews) arrives at the station. Not only does he save a young boy on his first day, he also robs Len of his Iron Man title. And he’s good looking. And gay. And so after heading out into Sydney to celebrate, Len decides to punish the bright-eyed object of his desire, stripping Phil naked to humiliate him and forcing his best friend Meat (Harry Cook) to dig a hole to bury him in up to his neck.
With its study of masculinity centred around a straight man trying to find himself, Drown should by rights have a universal appeal. And yet with its roving eye targeting rippling torsos in soft-focus, Dean Francis’ film has an overriding queer aesthetic. Matt Levett is brilliant as the bullyboy, repressed homophobe unable to reconcile his proofs of masculinity with his deeply buried, same-sex lust, and Francis’ script neatly knocks off the socio-economic pressures that see Len caught in his own private trap. And yet, there’s also something desperately childish about Drown, as we watch Len force Phil to sodomise himself. Or see Len making Phil retch with two fingers down his throat turn into a sexual act. Or as we become embroiled in the story of Meat and his oversized manhood. As if Len’s repulsive adolescent obsession with the ins and outs of gay sexuality is somehow the film’s own.
With a story that drags our straight hero through self-hating desire as well as the gay clubs of Sydney, Drown is above all the story of a man pushed to the limits of self-exploration. But ultimately unable to accept himself, drowns in his own internalised homophobia and prejudice. And while Dean Francis’s film works best as a petition to all those men too ashamed to come out of the closet, Drown is most likely preaching to the already converted.
Adapted (from the stage play by Stephen Davis) as well as produced, directed, edited and photographed by Dean Francis, Drown could certainly have benefited from some external influence to prevent it from capsizing under the weight of its overpowering current of flashbacks or entangled in the weeds of messy dialogue. But metamorphosing in the final reel into a poetic and yet sober look at male suicide, Drown is buoyed by its powerful story of a desperate man unable to escape himself.
Drown is released on DVD on 12th October 2015 in the UK