The setting for Dean Francis’ “Drown” is one ripe for a fascinating exploration of a very specific kind of masculinity – that of the modern Australian male. As someone who grew up around the specific lifesaving culture the film portrays, and someone who was always gay in this most macho of sub-cultures, my perspective on this subject matter is probably a lot more informed and less objective than the average viewer interested in checking out this particular film.
Which is why “Drown” is ultimately a frustrating experience for me at least, much like the way a climatologist would react to “The Day After Tomorrow” or a geologist to “Dante’s Peak”. Francis’ previous films make no bones about dealing with often gruesome or dark subject matter pertaining to the pain that men inflict on each other, but at the same time it’s often highly exploitative and with an almost music video sensibility that’s all about how darkly lurid it can get.
From loving slow-motion takes of “The 100” star Bobby Morley’s rippling torso in “Road Kill,” to the true story-inspired short “Boys Grammar” which first introduced Jai Courtney’s hefty ballsack to the world, Francis is both shameless and relentless in his attempts to exploit eroticism out of every scene, even when it crosses the line with graphic and nasty acts of assault of an often sexual nature.
The story of “Drown” follows Len (Matt Levett), the typical alpha male champion of a NSW surf life saving club who finds his position threatened by the club’s new golden boy Phil (Jack Matthews). Phil is younger, gentler, more classically handsome and gay. The latter aspect is an issue for Len, one of those guys whose aggressive insecurity comes not from ignorance like most, but rather his own repressed gay desires caused by an abusive father and the relentless machismo of his social circle.
How the one-sidedly antagonistic relationship between the two plays out is the focus, with the narrative’s present being set around an extended humiliation incident on the second half of a night out with the three key characters – Len, Phil and Len’s straight, thoughtful and meek friend ‘Meat’ (Harry Cook). Most of the rest is a blend of flashbacks to the days leading up to that night combined with visions of Len seething over Phil’s loving sexual relationship with his partner, Len’s own early years, and acts of nasty bullying against all three of these guys which gets to the point of them all developing something of a victim complex.
Being set around a lifesaving club brings up obvious and interesting themes regarding male behavior and how sexuality fits into this world. On many sporting teams, and on the bar/club scene on Friday and Saturday nights, some of the most macho straight men there are often engage in horseplay that crosses that line of blatant gay sexual behaviour. Yet these same men who would run screaming at the first suggestion of any kind of actual sexual intimacy with men. This is something only enhanced by Australia’s mateship culture and Sydney’s beach culture in particular where lifesavers mandatorily don tiny speedos which are, frankly, the gay equivalent of lingerie.
At the same time it’s a culture that also suffers from serious homophobia. As a gay man growing up, I was always well aware that the biggest threat to my person were young straight men with backwards or very rigid views of masculinity, not to mention inexperience and uncertainty about themselves. Aussie culture exacerbated the problem in that this is a society that celebrates rampant drunkeness, is inundated with a methamphetamine problem, is suspicious of anyone not into sporting pursuits, seems nonchalant about the outright harassment of women or minorities, and not only condones but idolises machismo rather than dismantles it for the often toxic insecurity that it is.
This is no more prevalent than in the bar culture in Sydney which is incredibly egocentric, homogenous and brutal. Young, white, hard bodied, handsome desk jockeys on low-mid six figures can party every night and sleep around like crazy, but if you’re not one of those things you’re often s–t out of luck. Having done straight and gay bar scenes in numerous cities around the world, it’s hard to find one with less of a variation of people and more openly hostile than the one you’ll see a glimpse of in “Drown”.
Francis’ film frequently touches upon these topics, but instead of serious exploration it favours overuse of filters, frantic editing, montages and flashes of male nudity or sex to hide the fact that, like ‘Grammar,’ “Drown” sadly doesn’t seem to have much going on below the surface. What it does say, it does so with the subtlety of a sledge hammer and all the flash of a hardcore rave – which aptly describes the film’s best sequence in which the gang let loose at a gay night club after taking some pills.
Matt Levett, who has kind of made a career out of playing troubled gay characters, brings an aggressive intensity to the role that makes his dangerous edge very believable – more so than the character’s interesting yet unconvincing slips into nihilism. Newcomer Jack Matthews, as Phil, brings sex appeal and a required warmth. Both however are limited by their thinly drawn characters which unfortunately embrace fairly cliched aspects. Harry Cook leaves the best impression as ‘Meat,’ easily the most sympathetic character of the film who at least has a bit more to him than just being Len’s lapdog.
The three-way balance of this relationship is the film’s most interesting element. Len and Meat’s relationship for example seems to be the only one in the entire film born of an actual friendship and loyalty, one that’s become off-balance thanks to both exploiting each other to some extent along with a dash of unrequited affection. Music use is solid if forgettable, but production values are quite healthy with some intriguing cinematography that makes the film look like it cost a lot more than it probably did.
As the film progresses, this voyeuristic approach to a twisted act of sadism and humiliation pushes into some genuinely provocative territory. Francis obviously wants to make the viewer feel as much complicit with as they are disgusted by Len, but he’s such an unsympathetic character and his actions are so contemptuously monstrous it can’t help but be the awkward mix of ugly homophobia and masochistic fetishism it actually is.
At the same time the film keeps its exploitation going at full steam – the inebriated Phil is not entirely a roll over and actually engages in some suggestive sparring with Len to try and get him to see the truth about himself. There’s even a vomit scene so over the top that the brief laugh it offers is a welcome respite. Yet it’s here, in this darkest of territories, that the film finds its strength in the scene where Len and Meat finally have it out in a brutal session of truth about their relationship.
If that is the ultimate aim of the film, it’s a commendable one. When men, regardless of sexuality, truly open up about their genuine desires and affection for and with each other, and feel free to explore the parameters and depths of their relationships without judgement – it’s a beautiful thing. It’s a place where truly equal, lasting and deep friendships can be formed no matter if they have a sexual component or not. It’s also something that a macho subculture, like Australian lifesaving, claims to embrace in the form of ‘mateship’. In actuality its a polite name for a backwards herd mentality that only prevents such close bonds from truly forming.
Intention only gets you part of the way though. Like fellow Aussie Baz Luhrmann, Francis is so enamoured with his stylistic flourishes and the film’s eye candy that the execution of its thematic heart is partly lost amidst the jarring tone and some clunky choices ranging from the overuse of musical montages to the tedious voice over. Francis has got an interesting eye and goal in mind here, it’s just the material needed more refinement and stronger structural beats for it to reach its admirably lofty ambitions.