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WETLANDS (2017) review

September 14, 2017

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written by: Emanuelle Della Valle
produced by: Fred C. Caruso
directed by: Emanuelle Della Valle
rated: unrated
runtime: 98 min.
U.S. release date: September 15, 2017

 

Although it has the same title, the feature-length debut from writer/director Emanuelle Della Valle is thankfully not an American remake of David Wnendt’s “Wetlands”. All this neo-noir from writer/director Emanuelle Della Valle shares with that quirky/kinky German coming-of-age dramedy from 2013 is a title. The film is taking familiar noir conventions and placing them in a rarely-seen modern setting with a convincingly dour tone and feel that’s accentuated by a committed cast. For the most part, this moody storyline works for all those reasons, yet seems to leave us hanging (possibly disappointed) during its somewhat odd third act.

Babel “Babs” Johnson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) has landed in the Wetlands, the coastal communities just south of Atlantic City. His sole purpose is to put his  life back together by reconnecting with his teen daughter, Amy (Celeste O’Connor), who lives with her mother/his ex, Samantha (Heather Graham). It’s not gonna be easy. Although, he’s dry and clean now, having supposedly kicked a heroin addiction that cost him his job as a detective in Philadelphia, building a new reputation will prove to be even more of a challenge considering for those who knew who he was in the past. With therapy and some support groups, he’s willing to give it a go if it means a chance at a relationship with his daughter.

 

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The local police chief cautiously offers Babs a detective job in the area with a warning that he’ll be watched closely. He’s partnered with an old friend, loudmouth detective Paddy Sheehan (Christopher McDonald), an avid Philadelphia Eagles fan who manages his own gambling addiction, whose resentful newscaster wife, Kate (Jennifer Ehle), hints in no words that she’s the lone person excited that Babs is in town. Doing his best to remain on the straight and narrow and show some responsibility, Babs detects some local drug trafficking in the area, which could possibly effect his daughter since the Surfer Girl (Reyna de Courcy, who has a distracting “Sunset Boulevard” narration) his ex has shacked up with has taken to skimming some bags to fulfill her dreams of escaping to Maui.

As he gets deeper into the local drug problems, Babs makes some revealing ties to police corruption and an unfortunate homicide. His addiction temptations rise as his actions become heavily scrutinized by the police department, forcing Babs to face the sobering strive for repentance and atonement.

What becomes noticeable right from the start is how visually enticing “Wetlands” looks. The geography shrouded in bleak grays and cloudy overcast is more of a mood enhancer than it is a place I’d like to visit. It reminded me of what Christopher Nolan did with the Alaskan setting of “Insomnia, building up the environment to be a foreboding character in and of itself. Cinematographer Barry Markowitz (who lensed “Sling Blade” and “Crazy Heart”) uses the environment to the film’s advantage, often dwarfing the imposing figure of Akinnouye-Agbaje by abandon buildings, rickety docks and immense shorelines. These decisions epitomize the underlying isolation, sadness and gloom that permeates the characters we’re introduced with. It feels like each individual we meet is affected by the weight of their surroundings and the choices Valle and Markowitz make serve to draw us in to a closer understanding of where these characters are at emotionally and physically.

 

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Another aspect that becomes an immediate draw is the magnetic presence of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, an recognizable actor who’s had such a soulful on-screen presence since he made a name for himself on HBO’s “The Wire”. He definitely hooked me with his unforgettable turn as the mysterious Mr. Eko on “Lost” and has shown up in a variety of big-budget blockbusters over the years, popping up in a G.I. Joe flick and in both Marvel and DC cinematic universes, but most of all – and this was the draw of “Wetlands” for me – it’s just cool to see a lead role offered his way. His wounded and stoic demeanor is  definitely an appropriate fit for a noir protagonist who’s haunted by his past, yet returns with a slim chance of reconciliation with the inevitability of repeating his sins.

In fact, for the most part, the entire cast sort of elevates itself over the genre trappings of the material. The screenplay, which was also written by the director, offers an odd time jump at the end that feels abrupt and somewhat unearned, but I can attest that the actors  indeed hold their own (as well as our attention) throughout. They embody characters who seem to be weighed-down by this weary and worn feeling that they’re all trying to hide from everyone else.  McDonald does this well by portraying Paddy as a blowhard on the outside, who tries to hide his sad and pathetic aura that’s underneath what he projects. The same can he said for the great Jennifer Ehle, who conveys such a gutting emptiness and regret, portraying a character hungry for an intimate connection, stuck in a job where the someone younger is bound to replace her. It’s compelling to see her longing and restlessness build throughout the film, to the point where her character could care less about the consequences of her actions.

 

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“Wetlands” has a couple subplots that weave their way throughout, one accentuates the foreboding tension, while another uses a specific character presence as an obvious device to serve the narrative. The one that works is the mention of a hurricane named Suzy (they mentioned how the area was missed by Sandy, so I can only assume this is set in 2012) that’s headed toward the area. With a location surrounded by so much of the Atlantic, it’s easy to see the concern – yet, it’s fitting how everyone except for Babs shows any sense of alarm. They’ve been here so long, nothing phases them – nothing that they’ve done, that they’re doing or anything out of their control that’s coming straight at them.

If Valle could’ve ditched some of the genre tropes and relied more on atmosphere and mood, “Wetlands” could’ve delivered quite a riveting noir update. Unfortunately, much of what builds up in the film eventually comes across as anticlimactic – but again, at least there’s some performances here that stand out.

 

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RATING: **1/2

 

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