"The film hinges on Levett's powerful performance."

Out on the beach, in the sun, Len (Matt Levett) is king. His lifeguard chair is his throne. His body is strong and toned - he's a competition winner - and through this he has achieved a sort of security, a status that means no one will question him. Yet he questions himself. He can't shake the memory of a woman he one fund swimming out to sea; a woman who said she didn't want to go back to the shore, and whom he could not save. When new lifeguard Phil (Jack Matthews) arrives on the beach and saves a drowning boy on his first day, Len feels his status is under threat, and thoughts of his failure come flooding back.

This isn't the only concern Len has in relation to Phil. Part of the reason that he's worked so hard to build up his proud masculine identity is that he experiences attractions which don't fit with that, at least not as he understands it. The social space that he inhibits is very physical and there's a degree of same-sex flirtation that's playful rather than serious; he's not the only person there to feel it a little more strongly, but his internalised homophobia is ferocious. He can't be one of those people. He has to be a man, a real man, more of a man than anybody else around. So if Phil inspires his lust, he has to make Phil suffer.

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Though there's little sex, there's a lot of flesh on display in this film, buff and bronzed, communicating both the lust Len feels and the masculine ideals that have shaped all these bodies. The tone slips back and forth between this sensuality and Len's brutal responses to it, as hard on him as on anybody else. Entranced by what he sees, he is unable to let himself enjoy it, like Tantalus holding the fruit out of reach of his own mouth. The film hinges on Levett's powerful performance in this role. He's rarely offscreen and over the course of two hours we see Len's self-destructiveness build; for all his lashing out, he can't relieve the pressure. Best friend Meat (Harry Cook) is disturbed by his aggression and especially its sexual nature, which gradually exposes old bullying games for what they always were, yet he persistently tries to save him, like Len going after the drowning woman. Meat has issues of his own, and although the (appropriately) repetitive nature of the script doesn't give Cook much room to explore them, he nevertheless presents us with a complete character, not ceding all the space to Levett.

Crucial to making this work is Matthews' performance, which brings much needed complexity to Phil. He's a lifeguard, after all; he's had to acquire a certain toughness of his own, and he's not an easy victim. His responses to Len's bullying reflects the flirtation of a minor character, a young gay man, who must be able to see that he's putting himself in a potentially explosive situation, but for whom that is perhaps part of the attraction. There's something of the proud masochist in Phil, able to take whatever is dished out, and that only makes him a more compelling object of obsession. Still, it's clear that sooner or later something's got to give.

Director Dean Francis' background in horror may add something to the tension at the heart of the film, but stylistically this is quite distinct from his previous work. Muted dialogue, sometimes overwhelmed by music, is complemented by intermittently out of focus visuals and slightly skewed camera angles which invite us to imagine how Len looks at the world. Francis' camera picks out the details: a bloodstain on a shirt, sweat glistening on skin. The visual language of sex and violence blurs.

Drown is unevenly paced and could have done with losing 20 minutes, so it doesn't quite pack the punch it might have done, but it's still a strong film with important things to say.

Reviewed on: 09 Oct 2015
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When a new lifeguard moves onto his patch and instantly becomes a hero, champion Len struggles with jealousy and with a sexual attraction that threatens his identity.
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Director: Dean Francis

Writer: Stephen Davis, Dean Francis

Starring: Matt Levett, Maya Stange, Jack Matthews, Jayr Tinaco, Maya Stange

Year: 2015

Runtime: 93 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Australia


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