This Aussie drama is about a group of young men who all belong to a surf lifesaving club. Len is a long-time member and the most successful of the group, having won numerous championships and lifesaver of the year awards. His life is shaken up with the arrival of the younger Phil, who saves someone from drowning on his first day and proceeds to show he could well be a challenger to Len’s crown.
However, it’s not just his fitness and lifesaving skills that Len has difficulty with, but also the fact he is attracted to the young man – something he doesn’t want to deal with. Phil meanwhile is well aware that he is gay and he has a boyfriend, even if he keeps that quiet at the club. Tension begins to grow, and as Len finds it increasingly difficult to deal with his feelings, they threaten to erupt in extremely dangerous ways.
Initially Drown can be a little confusing, as rather than telling its story in a linear fashion, it has a tendency to jump around to different moments in the tale. At first it can be tough to keep track of where you are but as it begins to reveal more about what is happening and who these people are, the whole thing opens up to become increasing tense and absorbing.
For example, from quite early on the film keeps jumping to a scene of Len and another lifesaver known as ‘The Meat’ (due to his enormous penis) digging on the beach, while Phil is lying on the ground drunk. However, it only slowly reveals what is going on, and quite how horrific it could become.
However, what really helps to pull the viewer in is its sharp depiction of Len, so that even when he is at his worst – and his worst is really bad – you have an understanding of his inner conflict. It is essentially the dissection of a bully, a man who is a morass of self-doubt and insecurity held together by a flimsy conception of ‘manliness’ and what it is to have self-worth. And when that is challenged, he will lash out brutally in order to try to hold on to it, pulling others into his web to do his bidding and prove his own superiority in his own mind.
It’s the sort of film where initially you’d be forgiven for thinking it would turn into a romance – a self-hating man who hasn’t come to terms with his sexuality, slowly learns to be himself. However, it becomes clear that it’s not that, it’s about something far darker and by the end there’s a huge amount of tension and a truly dark edge to what’s going on. The question becomes not about whether Len can accept himself, but whether he will manage to sustain his severely troubled ego long enough to limp on or not, and if he can, what that means for those around him.
The film is worryingly successful in getting you inside Len’s head, so that while you can never agree with him or what he’s doing, it’s surprisingly easy to understand how he’s ended up the way he is, and also why someone who challenges him both physically and sexually threatens to cause his entire worldview to start crashing down around him in such a potentially deadly way.
Phil is also an interesting character. He comes from a new generation that is more comfortable with its sexuality, but also aware that not everyone else is. As he negotiates having a boyfriend with trying to fit in with the club, he is constantly having to deal with the two sides, knowing that the almost inherently homoerotic edge to a bunch of men who spend their lives half naked around one another is likely to lead to a macho side that is unlikely to be fully tolerant of difference, and where a pack mentality could cause issues.
He wants to fit in and he also seems aware that Len is attracted to him, but his hopes of being properly accepted may lead him into situations where things could get out of hand very quickly.
It is certainly not a nice or pleasant film, and while it doesn’t shy away from the sexiness of the lifesavers, it is also increasingly dark and brutal, leading to a scene on the beach which is pretty haunting. You probably won’t be smiling at the end, but you’ll probably be thinking about the movie for days to come.
Overall Verdict: Drown is challenging and surprisingly effecting, taking a harsh look at the potential brutality of homophobia and quite how dangerous it can be if a life is built on denial and a house of cards about what masculinity is.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac