Our man lives alone in a sparsely furnished apartment, ekes out a living at a mind-numbing work-from-home job, takes care of a pet gerbil – maybe it’s a guinea pig, doesn’t really matter – that pays him little mind.
He’s overweight, unmotivated, and occasionally prone to lashing out at service-industry types, particularly the hapless counter guy at the burger joint he frequents.
In the real world, he’s a person that most folks would ignore or, perhaps, willfully avoid. In the movies – if someone like him appears at all – he’s a minor supporting character, there only to provide a comic or dramatic contrast to a much better put-together protagonist.
Simply put, our man is someone who’s been cast aside both in society and on screen, and it’s a bold move for a film to put him front-and-center. Wade in the Water, from director Mark Wilson and screenwriter Chris Retts, does exactly that, and it makes an admirable, often compelling effort to consider this character as the emotionally and intellectually complex human being that he is. The film isn’t able to completely steer clear of stereotypes, but it also doesn’t pander – the empathy and understanding it shows toward its subject feel genuine and earned.
“The catalyst is a padded envelope he finds in his post office box, addressed to someone else and mistakenly placed with his mail…”
Our man – that’s what the character is called in the closing credits, and we never do learn his real name – is played by Tom E. Nicholson, and the film finds him at the rare moment in his life when he’s motivated to take decisive action. The catalyst is a padded envelope he finds in his post office box, addressed to someone else and mistakenly placed with his mail; inside is an unmarked CD-ROM that, our man is appalled to discover, contains a trove of child pornography.
It’s a horrific discovery, but for both better and inevitably worse, it awakens something in our man that he’s not at all accustomed to. Rarely driven to venture outside the confines of his living room, he nevertheless decides to embark on a solitary mission to track down – and punish – the person to whom the envelope was addressed. His quarry turns out to be surprisingly easy to find, but things get complicated when the guy’s college-age daughter, Tilly (Danika Golombek), forcefully injects herself into our man’s life, forcing him to question not only his ill-advised foray into vigilantism but also the deeply troubled past that led him to where he is.
Wade in the Water somewhat recalls Taxi Driver in its premise of an ignored, introverted loner driven to take justice into his own hands, but little-by-little, the film blooms into something both different and much more sensitive. The relationship that develops between our man and Tilly (“friendship” is far too strong a word, especially given the circumstances) becomes the story’s center, and what it finds there is moving and unexpected. She is, in many ways, a far more privileged person than he, but Retts’ screenplay is penetrating in the way it seeks out the common ground that they share – as well as the tentative, mostly indirect ways in which they can actually help one another to cope.
“…none of this material would work without exceptionally capable actors to pull it off…”
Of course, none of this material would work without exceptionally capable actors to pull it off, but Wade in the Water‘s two lead performances easily clear that bar. Nicholson, with his defensive sarcasm, his hangdog expressions, and his painfully expressive silences, makes the most of this starring role; his line deliveries, especially, have a knack for drawing out both humor and exasperation from even the most mundane situations. Golombek is great, also, playing off Nicholson in ways that knowingly, yet always subtly, let slip the insecurity and young-adult volatility that hide just below Tilly’s blasé exterior.
Even with all of those bright spots in storytelling and performance, however, the film is not without its inconsistencies of tone – the humor is sometimes a little too broad, and some of the darker moments too lurid, to feel of a piece with the surrounding scenes. The occasional misstep aside, though, the filmmakers more often than not hit upon a near-perfect tonal balance for what is, to say the least, difficult subject matter. At its best, Wade in the Water is downbeat but not dour, sardonic but not mean-spirited, and it’s careful to avoid tipping too far toward being either a “feel-good” movie or an outright downer.
Respectable in both intentions and execution, this is the kind of film that sneaks up on you and leaves a lasting impression. Like our man himself, it shouldn’t be overlooked.
Wade in the Water (2019) Directed by Mark Wilson. Written by Chris Retts. Starring Tom E. Nicholson, Danika Golombek, Samuel Whitehill, Kevin McKim, Jeremiah Jahi, Matthew Daniger, John Clark
8 out of 10