The narrative arc of Paul Taylor’s “Driftwood” is rather simple: a girl washes up on a beach, is taken into the care of an older man who then conditions her to be his wife — to cook, to clean, and to satisfy him, at times against her will — and eventually she revolts. So the natural assumption would be that the bulk film is what exists in the cracks, the thematic explorations humming beneath the surface, and this is exactly what “Driftwood” wants us to think. But while there are attempts to mine some truly interesting and important ideas, the film never succeeds in saying anything substantial, landing more in the spectrum of cursory.
The film opens on a bleak stretch of blurred coast. A young woman (Joslyn Jensen) stumbles into frame. Then, suddenly, she is riding, asleep, in the back of a jeep. A middled-aged man (Paul C. Kelly) has taken her home. He leads her inside, clothes her, feeds her, shows her how to use the bathroom. She is more or less a child, an alien to this world, but she learns quickly, exploring the house, learning to use doors and windows, poking herself on a painfully obvious Chekhovian knife.
Strange as it all may seem, the film doesn’t take on a menacing tone until the woman wanders off into the woods. When she is found by the man, he digs chains from his shed and turns his house into a sort of prison. Even still, the man’s threats feel unfounded, as though he is amateurishly improvising as he goes.
Soon the man is digging out a long buried box of possessions from an old life, including a wedding ring and wedding dress. The notion is haunted and classic: a man claiming a woman, shaping her to his desires, and expecting her to be nothing but what he wants. When he sees a model writhing on a beach on TV in a bathing suit, he goes out first thing and buys the woman a similar set of underwear.
What he wants from her is both clear and not; he wants a wife, a lover, and maybe a mother? And when the young woman does not fulfill each of these roles his anger spikes. But what she desires is more complex, though equally unrealized. She is a blank slate, hungering to understand the world, but kept captive, as a piece of property.
Almost most unfortunate for “Driftwood” is its close proximity in release to Lenny Abrahamson’s Oscar sleeper “Room.” While both are ostensibly very different and are aimed toward disparate ends, Abrahamson’s “Room” simply nails the foreign and exciting new world sensation with aplomb, while “Driftwood” is never able to capture the same wonder, which prevents certain scenes from ever resonating.
Certain films of late have used the no-dialogue conceit to elevate a sense of the foreign (“The Tribe” might be the best recent example, though sign is used throughout, just simply never given subtitles), but in doing so, an extra pressure is placed upon the actors. So, while Jensen does commendable work playing a blank slate (which can’t ever be too exciting to watch), we are never given much to help us connect, nor is there ever much desire to — especially with the logic of certain choices.
Where the micro-budget “Driftwood” does succeed is in the cinematography. Written, directed, and shot by Taylor, the film is packed with languid static shots expertly constructed and framed. Each, on its own, is beautiful, especially the opening shot. But the static nature of the film, combined with the lack of dialogue and the stuttered pacing, makes the 72-minute film drag, even as things take some surprising sci-fi turns.
But while it’s not great, it’s never bad. In fact, one of the worst things to be said about the film is that it’s solid. Everything about “Driftwood,” from the acting to the filmmaking is thoroughly competent. The problem is that it’s never exciting. It locks comfortably into one register and is afraid to ever leave it. [C-]