Naming Your Film Dead in the Water is Something of a Self-Fulfilling Prophesy
Jul 31, 2002 (Updated Aug 2, 2002)
Review by d_fienberg
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:Nice Brazilian settings, short running time, I always like Dominique Swain
Cons:Under-developed plot, annoying characters, sometimes dull direction
The Bottom Line: It's a thriller on a boat. Except it's off the coast of Brazil, you've probably seen this before, though you've never seen it with Dominique Swain. So that's a plus.
Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
Recommend this product?
In 1990, Emilio Estevez wrote and directed a comedy about two garbage men. Say what you will about Emilio Estevez, but he's clearly not a stupid man. Somehow he resisted the temptation to call his movie Pile of Trash or Total Garbage because he realized that some titles are just begging for dismissive headlines written by lazy Arts Section copy editors. He called his movie Men At Work and that didn't actually improve the reviews for his movie, but at least it required critics and copy editors to do ten seconds of work before dismissing it.
Dead In The Water is another of those titles that probably a smarter marketing department than Lion's Gate would have avoided. Especially for a little thriller that went straight-to-video. Because it doesn't take a mental giant to observe that this movie was pretty much dead in the water. Basically, if you have a bad movie don't provide critics with any more ammunition than is totally necessary. And let me assure you that even without the prophetic title, Dead in the Water would have more than a few things going against it.
Dead in the Water is one of those little movies by a first-time filmmaker that doesn't know what it wants to be first. Writer-Director Gustavo Lipsztein doesn't know what he wants to steal from ("Borrow from"? "Pay homage to"? "Rip off"?) first. There's more than a little of Polanski's Knife In The Water here (Lipsztein's title suggests that this, at least, might be homage rather than theft). You can also find traces of Dead Calm and all of Hitchcock's single-set suspense pieces (Lifeboat or Rope). Then you've got a healthy dose of A Simple Plan and since writer Scott Smith basically ripped off Jim Thompson wholesale for A Simple Plan, you could call Dead In The Water Jim Thompson at sea. But much as Thompson's pulp novels were usually short, psychologically twisted, and quick, Thompson had an impeccable sense of how far to take the audience and how much suspense a reader could endure. That's part of why his books have become such favorites among filmmakers (The Getaway , The Grifters, etc...).
Lipsztein doesn't yet have that sense and so Dead in the Water lets the audience off the hook several steps early. The film's final scene is inevitable, appropriate, obvious, and totally undeserved. Lipsztein had to take us further because otherwise, this movie is just dead in the water. Sorry. There was no point in resisting.
After a credit sequence showing shots of the beaches of Rio at sunset, the film opens with the camera floating in the water. As the credits play you know that a body's about to float by. You're waiting for a body to float by. And, wouldn't you know it, a body comes floating by. It's a woman with long hair and in a bikini.
Cut to Dominique Swain's Gloria, standing in the window watching divers pull a body (the same body?) from waves. Her boyfriend Danny (Wolf Lake's Scott Bairstow) shows up to get her and after several seconds of making out, Gloria tells Danny she loves him, but Danny doesn't express his own love. That's writer shorthand for "The Relationship Is Troubled." Gloria's about to go off on a boating getaway with Danny and their friend Jeff (E.T.'s Henry Thomas... Ell-iiii-ott), but Gloria's Brazilian businessman father tells her that they have to take his business partner's son along with them. When Gloria starts to get petulant, her dad reveals that his finances aren't in good order and he needs to stay on good sides with his powerful partner.
Gloria hasn't met the partner's son, but wouldn't you know it? Marcos (Sebastian Devincente) turns out to be a stereotypical Brazilian Latin Lover with only one interesting character trait — Marcos has never been out on the ocean and he's a very poor swimmer. Gee. You think that might become relevant to the plot? So the foursome heads out on the boat. They splash. They fight. Danny and Gloria get amorous in the shallow water. But mostly Danny and Gloria fight, leaving Gloria spending lots of time pouting on the front of the ship, tanning. In fact, the entire first act of the film is made up of little more than Dominique Swain in a bikini. And I'm not complaining. Sure, nothing of any real consequence happens, but, as I said, it's the once and future Lolita in a bikini.
Then, things start getting troublesome. Danny and Jeff leave Marcos and Gloria alone on the boat. And if there's anything that movies have taught us, it's don't leave an Anglo girl and a South American guy alone together in an enclosed space, because those Latino men just have too much passion in their souls and they can't keep their hands to themselves. And, imagine that, almost instantly Marcos starts romancing Gloria and, since she's had a bit too much to drink, she gives in and they're making out when Jeff returns to the boat. To protect her tenuous dignity, Gloria pretends that Marcos forced himself on her and hotheaded Danny throws Marcos overboard with only a life jacket. Did I mention that Danny wasn't a great swimmer? Well, Danny just means to take the boat one around the island and then come back for Marcos but when they return... Marcos is gone!
That touches off the film's final hour of moping, complaining, worrying, crossing, and double-crossing. Well, actually, not so much on the double crossing because that would involve that extra step or two that Lipsztein (I swear I've been spelling his name differently each and every time I've written it) doesn't take us. Mostly he sets up a bunch of stupid characters on a ship and then, when tragedy rears its ugly head those stupid character act stupidly. From the moment they can't find Marcos, it's one irrational plan after another. The point of movies like this is that the audience gets to see how "normal" people would react in stressful circumstances, but for whatever reason, Lipsztein has made the characters dumber than normal. I spent the last hour of the movie going, "Now why would he/she want to do that?" and "I'm sure they could have seen *that* coming."
I'm not one of those people who feels that movies need to have sympathetic characters, since surprisingly few of the people I hang out with in the real world are sympathetic people. However, I need my unsympathetic characters to be interesting.
The most interesting thing about Dominique Swain's Gloria is that Lipsztein expects us to buy that she's half-Brazilian. That means viewer get the spectacle of Dominique Swain speaking in Portuguese, which only raises the question "What was up with THAT?" She sortta mumbles her Portuguese dialogue, but even I know she sounded ridiculous and I don't speak more than five words of Portuguese. Is Dominique Swain huge in France, or something? Because otherwise her casting in this movie seems strange. The director is Brazilian, he made sure they shot in Brazil. Would it have been so hard to find a half-Brazilian actress (or even a half-Latina actress of any kind, since American audiences can't distinguish anyway) for this part? I don't want to take food off of Swain's table, since she's a favorite of mine, but she's not really right for this part. Then again, her character's backstory is muddled or absent to begin with. In fact, we know nothing at all about her. She doesn't seem to be employed or going to school and her major character trait is that she's a whiney, clingy, shrieky girlfriend. If it weren't Dominique Swain, I wouldn't understand why any of the other characters would have anything to do with her. She's an unfortunately annoying central character.
Not that the other roles are much more interesting. Jeff is basically the Third Wheel from the get-go. We don't really know why he came along or how he really relates to these other character. In fact the entire backstory is relayed through references to nebulous events in specific geographical locations as if the audience is supposed to know or care what happened there ("This is just like Arizona" or "I won't have another Hong Kong" or "Everybody still remembers what happened in Peoria"). Jeff, Danny, and Gloria all seem to be rich and Danny and Jeff seem to do something with stocks or trading or whatever. Jeff's character and his motivations are made more confusing by the fact that Henry Thomas looks and acts older than either Swain or Bairstow (who's actually 32 to Thomas's 31) making you wonder how these characters could be peers. It's tough to know how anybody goes with anybody else and Lipsztein doesn't help matters any by refusing to add any depth to their interactions or motivations. Jim Thompson's books are subplot-lite, but what they have is two important driving forces — geography and motivation. We know why all of his characters are where they are and we know what they want. Lipsztein characters are fuzzy on each. His formula is to take undermotivated and underdeveloped characters, add Brazilian Spice (the equally underdeveloped Marcos) and hope that things get stirred up properly. It's a start, but nothing goes far enough and the lack of depth does none of his actors any favors. Bairstow and Thomas are fine, though neither actor does anything memorable and Devincente is amateurish, but since he spends most of his time in a Speedo, he's mostly eye-candy.
The best thing about Dead In The Water is the authenticity of its locations. The film was shot in Rio and off the coast of Brazil and Lipsztein and cinematographer Marcelo Durst avoid do justice to the lovely beaches and mountains. After a while, though, the sweeping helicopter aerials of the boat and the coastline and sunsets and hills make you wonder if the film was sponsored by the Brazilian tourism board. It's all pretty, but sometimes it's scenery just for the sake of scenery rather than to compliment the plot.
The majority of the movie is shot on the deck of the boat and Lipsztein has a limited number of available set-ups. After a while, you get tired of the same camera positions and of the bland white deck (and of the character's costumes which sometimes blend into the deck). Lipsztein relies heavily on handheld camera for any movement, but his pet shot seems to be the static deep focus shot with one character in the foreground unaware of the actions of another character in the background. Compositionally it's a nice touch, but after the director uses the same effect four or five times, you wish he'd find a way to freshen things up. Sometimes the staging on the boat is quite awkward, people saying emotional things but mostly standing in place, either because the boat didn't offer enough room for mobility or because they couldn't get around the camera.
And, just for fun, I'll return to one of my personal favorite issues of late: the Possessionary Credit. Dead In The Water is "A Gustavo Lipsztein Film." What does that mean? I guess as writer/director, Lipsztein is at least somewhat more entitled than Jim Donovan, the director of Provocateur, but I've always figured the "Film By" credit should be saved until the audience might have a clue what "a Film By" a certain director would mean. After having seen one "Gustavo Lipsztein Film" I don't know what I would expect in a second. The film gets a slightly personal angle from the Brazilian setting, but mostly its a genre effort not approaching anywhere near the level of the best of the genre (Dead Calm or Knife in the Water). When I see the credit "A Gustavo Lipsztein Film" should I just expect to see a conventional below average thriller with South American undertones? That's a slight recommendation at best.
Meanwhile, in case you're keeping track, Intern is the last of the Dominique Swain straight-to-video releases that I need to see and review. And meanwhile, I'll continue to watch her career and hope for the best, while expecting things more like the subpar thriller.
[The DVD for Dead In The Water has a few extra features. It includes Gustavo Lipsztein's short film The Colonel's Last Flight, which also starred Sebastian Devincente. I watched ten of its twenty-five minutes before deciding I didn't care. Then there was a storyboarding feature that showed me virtually nothing about the art of storyboarding. There's also a featurette (three minutes of behind the scenes footage) and an alternate ending which would have been no more or less obvious than the film's actual ending, it just would have been even more insulting to the viewer's intelligence.
Finally, there's a commentary track with Lipszein, two of the producers, and one of the editors. The sad thing is that it's a chatty and informative commentary. But as often happens when you have a commentary after a bad movie, you don't want to sit through the feature again just to listen to filmmaking tips. So as much as I was interested in what the guys had to say, I didn't feel like sitting through their movie again. My apologies.]
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