On its surface, "Abandon" is a suspense film about a missing student, Embry (Charlie Hunnam), who may have returned to haunt his former girlfriend Katie (Katie Holmes), now a college senior, and to cause trouble on an Ivy League-like campus. But at its heart, the movie is more a character study of a woman dealing with the ugly side of being beautiful.
This is an area rarely explored on film, where a lead female's beauty is generally either an asset or a given. But writer-director Stephen Gaghan, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Traffic" who used Sean Desmond's novel "Adams Fall" as a springboard for "Abandon," takes a more critical tack without being obvious about his intentions.
Katie's father abandoned her and her mother when she was 3, and Embry left her behind years later. That she attracts everyone from an activist classmate (Gabriel Mann) to a corporate recruiter (Mark Feuerstein) to a recovering-alcoholic detective (Benjamin Bratt) seems only to increase her unease; they too might reject her despite her looks and brains, thus reinforcing her sense of being a fraud.
These points are never stated directly, but they're implicit in the script and Holmes' effective performance. As in "Wonder Boys," the actress has a natural ability to mix a beyond-her-years wisdom with a baby-faced naivete, and the tension between the two is especially pronounced here.
Katie is exceptionally poised but, aside from a night of partying under a strobe light with friends, rarely carefree. In contrast, her best pal Samantha (Zooey Deschanel in an appealingly loose performance) may be overshadowed by Katie in almost every respect but, in a refreshing departure from cliche, never shows resentment.
As a thriller, "Abandon" is admirably lacking in hype - Gaghan doesn't feel the need to pump up tense moments with shrill music or jarring camera effects - but also somewhat slack. Bratt's Wade Handler is a low-intensity gumshoe as he investigates what happened to Embry, and the movie mirrors his approach, preferring deliberate contemplation to urgency.
Part of the problem is that Embry isn't compelling enough to make you care much where he went or whether he's returned. On paper he's a brilliant nonconformist given to extravagant gestures of charity and provocative solo art performances that extend a middle finger toward his complacent audience.
But as portrayed by Hunnam, he's a floppy-haired pretty boy, one whom the script feeds such ludicrous pronouncements as "I am the infantile center of the (expletive) universe!" He should be so charismatic that you share Katie's feelings of abandonment and loss. Instead you just wish she'd move on.
This rather drab-looking movie keeps you guessing up until the requisite twist ending, which Gaghan stages somewhat awkwardly by jumping back and forth in time. The biggest surprise may be what the filmmaker doesn't show; he withholds a big dramatic payoff, so the audience must fill in the blanks.
In other words, Gaghan would rather make you think than jump. You might prefer to do both, but idea-driven thrillers are in short supply, and the troubled Katie earns the right to haunt your mind.
3 stars (out of 4)
Written and directed by Stephen Gaghan; photographed by Matthew Libatique; edited by Mark Warner; music by Clint Mansell; produced by Lynda Obst, Edward Zwick, Roger Birnbaum, Gary Barber. A Paramount Pictures release; opens Friday, Oct. 18. Running time: 1:33. MPAA rating: PG-13 (drug and alcohol content, sexuality, some violence and language).
Katie - Katie Holmes
Detective Wade Handler - Benjamin Bratt
Embry - Charlie Hunnam
Samantha - Zooey Deschanel
Amanda - Gabrielle Union Harrison - Gabriel Mann
Mark Caro is the Chicago Tribune movie reporter.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times