Abandon (2002)

Abandon accurately captures the college life, but unfortunately, that’s not its goal. It has the goal of being a thriller, and to do that you need to thrill an audience. You need suspense, doubt, and something that has the potential to keep you on the edge of your seat. Abandon has little of any of that, and is instead focused on its lead character, a promising student named Katie (Katie Holmes). She works hard, doesn’t date, aces job interviews, and by all accounts should have already finished her thesis and secured a job.

But she hasn’t, because she’s still aching from the break-up she had with her boyfriend, Embry (Charlie Hunnam). He, the kind of genius that nobody understands, disappeared directly after one of the plays he was directing, and hasn’t been seen since. Katie is heartbroken, and thinks about him daily. She seeks counseling, but now that the police have finally put someone on the case, Detective Wade Handler (Benjamin Bratt), old wounds are being re-opened. Unnecessarily, she thinks, as she hasn’t seen him in two years, but soon enough, she’s seeing him everywhere. Embry has returned.

Or has he? With all the anxiety she’s facing, her counselor thinks that she might just be hallucinating her ex. The Detective is interested in her possible delusions, and she finds him kind and takes to him soon enough. It’s a thriller, so you can probably see the road that this is going to take, but you might not be able to see how it ends. Perhaps you will, as it’s a little too easy to see the misdirection the film tries to pull, but you’ve got to give is a hand for at least trying to fool you.

The problem is that we have no reason to fear anyone in the film. Embry disappeared for a while and may or may not be stalking Katie, but why should we considering him dangerous? If he wanted to do some damage, he wouldn’t have waited two years. We already found out that he’s the kind of person to disappear without telling anyone anyway, so why does Katie think he’s a danger?

The only reason we think the cop might be a bad guy is because we heard him attending an AA meeting where we learn that he once woke up with blood and hair on the front of his car. However, Katie didn’t hear that, and he’s given no reason to be a threat to her — and he’s not drinking, so he should be fine. We cannot fear for Katie because her only danger is college, and the stress that it puts on a hard worker like her. A lot of emphasis is put on her psychological state, actually, which works in the film’s favor. We believe that understand how she feels at all times, which is always beneficial when talking about the main character.

Abandon‘s representation of college life is what impressed me the most. These characters are smart, and are given all the credit that they deserve. There’s a balance made between work and partying, and even when one interferes with the other, both are in the character’s mind. The only difference between real life and the movie is that the latter is rated PG-13, so certain situations and words had to be excised from the film’s creation.

However, it’s still a thriller, which is what I had to keep reminding myself of as it played. For most of the running time, Abandon appeared far more like a drama, in large part because nobody was in any danger, but also because the film’s tone wasn’t suspenseful. A conventional thriller might have had much more stalking on the part of Embry, and he might have appeared and disappeared with the blink of an eye more often. Not this one. Here, he meets Katie soon enough and explains exactly what happened. The only question is whether or not we believe him.

But even if we don’t believe him, it’s hard to take him as a serious threat. Not until the final few scenes, anyway, when the screen gets all dark and people pop out from anywhere they choose, giving us a few jump scares. When Abandon starts becoming a conventional thriller is when it stops being fun. It begins to focus more on an uninteresting villain than Katie’s mental state, and then it ends with what’s supposed to be a twist that’s not exactly unique or surprising if you watch a decent number of these things.

Kate Holmes turns in a strong performance as the lead, both troubled enough to not be a Mary Sue, but able to exude confidence in a job interview. I was even more impressed with the supporting cast, like Katie’s best friends, played by Gabrielle Union and Zooey Deschanel, or the know-it-all girl in the library, played by Melanie Lynskey. These characters help add to the believability of the college atmosphere.

Abandon is not terribly thrilling, which is the only major disappointment I had with it. As a drama, it almost works better than it does as a thriller, as I enjoyed the scenes where Katie worked through her stresses and mental struggles more than when the darkness came and the villain jumped out from the corner. This is a film that understands college students, and takes advantage fully of both them and the institution they pay good money to attend. If only that level of depth had been applied to giving us chills.

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