[Review] Wade in the Water

When a movie begins with a cold open that obviously hints at events to come, typically it’s foreshadowing the end of the movie. This narrative device wants us to keep in mind the climax as it swivels back to see how we got here. But writer Chris Retts’ subverts this trend in his debut feature script for Wade in the Water. Instead, the cold open becomes a catalyst that pivots the story to examine the way broken people deal with grief and past traumas.

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This particular cold open shows our protagonist, an overweight man known only as Our Man (Tom E. Nicholson), dressed all in black and skulking outside someone’s home. A kind of surgical type mask covers his hair and his unkempt busy beard. Over the mask is a black ski mask, with eyeholes haphazardly cut out and glasses precariously jutting through them. An intruder has to see, after all.

Not that it’s much help, since he accidentally drops his gun while picking up a fake rock hiding a key. It’s not until he’s about the enter the house that he realizes it. Goes back. Grabs the gun. It’s obvious he’s over-his-head, but with a deep breath, he opens the door.

This cold open tells us all we need to know about Our Man, but as it swivels back to the beginning, we do a deep dive into this very depressed and lonely man. He has a P.O. Box and he visits his frenemy who cooks at a greasy diner and always gives Our Man the wrong meal. Our Man is angry at the world. He’s spent his life building walls that to get to know him seems impossible. By day, he works alone at home for some mega medical conglomerate, calling people who have billing issues. By night, he watches a mix of porn and old, black and white movies.

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Our Man is severely out of shape; obviously depressed. He has to attend court-ordered psychiatrist appointments for some unknown event in his past; presumably due to his trigger-happy attitude that, for example, causes him to throw a hamburger at his diner frenemy. At one of these appointments, we get the hint that he was abused by his father at a young age. And it’s obvious that whatever those events were, they fucked up his life in a deeply traumatic way.

One night, he opens a package sent to him by mistake. Inside is a CD full of image files with names like “beach nudes” and “shower nudes.” His lasciviousness turns to abject horror when he realizes the images are of young boys. This event has triggered something deep inside and he makes it his mission to track down the man the CD was meant for. Long story short, turns out it’s a reverend who escaped a molestation charge earlier.

It’s given his life purpose. He cleans apartment, which once looked like an episode of Hoarders. Fills his fridge with vegetables. Goes jogging. Goes through the process of buying a gun. Practices shooting by watching old cowboy shows and mimicking the heroes with a banana or a TV remote.

And then comes the cold open, the end of the first act where Our Man shoots and kills the reverend.

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I’m sorry if you think that’s a spoiler but truthfully, it’s the least interesting aspect of Wade in the Water. What follows is a deep dive examination of the profound ways grief and traumatic events can cause a circular path of destruction. He should feel relief for shooting his father’s stand-in by proxy. Instead, he finds himself falling back into the same routines as before. It hasn’t brought him closure.

But what it has brought him is Tilly (Danika Golombek), the reverend’s daughter who begins a tender and awkward friendship with Our Man. Tilly is grappling with the knowledge of the kind of monster her dad was. He was nothing but a good dad to her and these revelations have shocked her to her foundation.

What sells the story is the authentic performances by Danika and Tom, who are alternately frustrating and vulnerable. The way Danika, in particular, attacks her role is full of pathos as she tries to understand Our Man. She is able to chip away at his wall in ways no other person has ever been able to. Meanwhile, the direction by Mark Wilson and the cinematography of Thomas Rose keeps the action grounded but the story moving. The camera captures the story matter-of-factly and allows the viewers to draw their own thematic conclusions.  

Wade in the Water surprised me. It tackles an incredibly dark subject matter in a very mature way and the story is stronger for taking such a risk in the second act. The act of vigilantism becomes a catalyst for a redemptive arc of two broken people, trying to find something real to grab onto.

It premieres at the Dances with Films festival on June 19th.