Written by: Ido Fluk
Directed by: Eytan Rockaway
Starring: Jason Patric, Louisa Krause, Mark Margolis
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Where hope goes to die.
The Abandoned seems to be a film struggling with its own familiarity. So much about its premise and plot has been exhausted that you can almost sense its filmmakers attempting to throw the audience off the scent with its diversions. They’re welcome plot threads that spring up to take the audience down various paths, almost as if to inspire some sort of confidence that this won’t tread down the same old territory. For a while, it’s enough to provide a distraction from the familiarity because it feels like The Abandoned can go in so many different directions. Unfortunately, this hope is all but snuffed out once it pretty much retreats exactly where you expect it to in a somewhat deflating turn of events—in the end, it’s yet another variation on a familiar theme, albeit a solidly crafted one, so it sort of breaks even.
Its premise feels vaguely reminiscent of The Innkeepers: two security guards, Streak (Louisa Krause) and Cooper (Jason Patric), keep watch over a huge, abandoned mental hospital, a menial chore that typically only involves fighting off boredom and shooing off vagrants. Cooper’s a seasoned vet, having been at his post “since the beginning,” while Streak is settling in for her first night on the job. After their contentious first meeting, the two begin to preside over the creepy, cavernous building from a cozy perch outfitted with security monitors. Streak, however, is eager to explore the place, particularly a forbidden room that Cooper has designated as “off-limits”. Soon, both her curiosity and good-hearted decision to let a vagrant in to find shelter are rewarded with the discovery of something sinister lurking within the building.
Screenwriter Ido Fluk toys with the vagueness of this setup—it looks for all the world that The Abandoned will be content to be yet another haunted building film where an overly-curious girl prowls through dark, dank corridors, guided by hushed, whispered voices of spirits. But there’s enough here to instill doubt that’ll move in a straight line, at least: Cooper’s depicted as sort of a shady, lecherous jerk, while the homeless man Streak shelters is prone to brandishing a knife and mumbling to his dog. Hell, the script even casts suspicion on Streak herself via her cryptic phone conversations and the bottle of pills she keeps by her side. What—if anything—can you trust about a situation where just about everything can go wrong?
The Abandoned is almost tantalizing in all of its possibilities. I enjoyed the open-ended, “what the hell is really going on?” vibe that results from the sprawling screenplay—at one point, it seems like The Abandoned could be a psychological thriller, a slasher flick, or a ghost story. For a brief moment, I hoped that it would somehow be all three in a clever attempt to spin a few familiar threads into something fresh or compelling, only to see the script circle back around to the most obvious route. Watching it almost has the same effect as riding shotgun with someone who takes a circuitous route just to essentially go in a straight line. At first, this felt like a bit of a letdown—to an extent, the script mechanizations are less playful and more distracting. It’s one thing to toy with expectations and play off of them, but it’s another to just sort of futz around without much of a point. Eventually, it just feels like the film is playing a game: “guess which hand the actual plot is in,” that sort of deal.
After settling in with the turn of events, however, I came to accept them, if only because director Eytan Rockaway skillfully stages the familiar bump-in-the-night beats via a mix of traditional lensing and a first-person, found-footage aesthetic. Both Streak and Cooper are outfitted with cameras so that one can always monitor the other’s surroundings from the security room, a plot device that naturally allows Rockaway to mine scares from that perspective. Even if this is the umpteenth riff on this haunted asylum theme, it at least scatters in some distinct, bizarre imagery from what is revealed to be—via a Google search, of course—a pretty familiar backstory.
To its credit, The Abandoned attempts to weave this stuff in with its characters’ own lives—this isn’t a case where two people randomly encounter some paranormal activity. Rather, there’s some thematic substance here born largely out of Streak and Cooper’s own parenthood: she’s fighting for custody of her daughter, while he is apparently estranged from his, two pertinent plot threads that slowly begin to wind themselves around what they discover deep in the bowels of this old children's hospital. Krause and Patric are solid anchors and generate just enough chemistry to keep The Abandoned from degenerating into an empty spook-a-blast exercise, though I would like to have seen them afforded a bit more time together during the film’s quieter moments.
This especially becomes a concern during the climax, when the film does take a surprising turn and makes a grab for some pathos that isn’t quite earned. I should note that the twist here is perhaps surprising by 2003 standards, as it digs up and leans on a trope that was all the rage about a decade ago. It’s a rug-puller that I could see being a bit of an eye-rolling deal breaker for some, but it works well enough in the context here, at least once you look past some of the niggling, nonsensical elements that you just have to go with. Usually, this sort of twist is deployed as a “gotcha” moment, and, while it naturally takes on that tenor a bit here, it’s mostly underpinned by a sense of bittersweet melancholy. Sometimes we become our own ghosts, the film insists, leaving the audience with one last gasp attempt at skirting that overwhelming sense of familiarity. The Abandoned doesn’t quite win that struggle, but it's not for lack of trying.
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