Dir:Peter Callahan. US. 2008. 98 mins.
A tale of friendship and grief, Against The Current plays like a road movie on water, bringing together three discontented people bound together by one’s bizarre quest to swim the entire 150 miles of New York’s Hudson River. For a little while, this modest drama’s unpredictable rhythms and deadpan humour have their charm, but writer-director Peter Callahan’s story encounters problems staying afloat amidst a sea of predictable road-movie tropes.
Starring Joseph Fiennes, Against The Current will need to emphasise its quirky tone and leisurely, contemplative pace when marketing the movie to arthouse audiences. This sensitive, unusual examination of mourning might not make a big splash theatrically, but it could do well in ancillary markets and prove a comfortable fit for home viewing.
Still reeling from the death of his pregnant wife five years ago, New York City resident Paul (Fiennes) recruits his best friend Jeff (Kirk) to fulfil a childhood dream - swimming the length of the nearby Hudson River in one month. With a comely acquaintance named Liz (Reaser) along for the adventure, Paul begins his quest, swimming a few miles every day while his companions follow along in a boat. Only after they begin this odyssey does Paul let it be known what he will do once he completes the task - he’s going to kill himself.
Writer-director Peter Callahan incorporates an unexpected strategy in making a film about grief’s stranglehold. Rather than constructing a typical melodrama, he has produced a character piece in which we aren’t necessarily meant to understand Paul’s motivations regarding this marathon swim or his decision to commit suicide - all that matters is that Paul seems calmly determined to carry out both objectives. Paul’s surprisingly matter-of-fact attitude leads to some effective moments of humour as his friends try to come to grips with the situation. In particular, Justin Kirk’s sarcastic, coarse Jeff is a perfect foil, offering off-colour jokes and ironic one-liners to counterbalance Paul’s eerie detachment from his serious intentions.
But while this off-kilter approach works initially, Against The Current eventually turns into a more traditional narrative in which all three participants will be transformed by their shared journey, meeting colourful characters along the way and learning important things about themselves. Particularly problematic is a tentative love affair between Paul and Liz that never quite reconciles with the fact that Paul may soon end his life.
Of the central performances, Kirk’s is the most persuasive - his Jeff is a wisecracking, self-deprecating failed actor whose sardonic streak can’t conceal either how deeply unhappy he is or how much he doesn’t want to lose Paul. By comparison, Fiennes and Reaser are muted but not particularly penetrating. Paul is meant to be an enigma - Callahan only offers the briefest backstory to explain the character’s inability to move on from his family’s death - but Fiennes fails to provide the necessary gravitas or smouldering pathos.
Technical credits are solid, with special mention going to cinematographer Sean Kirby who captures the beauty of rural New York State as the characters travel slowly down the Hudson River until they reach Manhattan - and Paul’s moment of truth.
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Mary Jane Skalski
Mary Tyler Moore