Against the Current (2009)
Director: Peter Callahan
Cast: Joseph Fiennes, Samantha Sherman, Pell James
Synopsis: Struggling with a tragic past, a man with an urgent calling enlists two friends to help him swim the length of the Hudson River.
An ultimately depressing little movie, Against the Current tells the story of a man who feels his life has run its course following the death of his wife and unborn baby. It offers little in the way of elaboration as to why he remains trapped in the grieving process instead of reconnecting with life the way that most people do over time. The story takes place five years after the deaths, which suggests that Against the Current is about a man for whom a universal psychological trauma has become a mental illness he finds it impossible to overcome, and which those closest to him seem incapable of understanding. Exactly why anyone would want to make such a movie — other than as a form of catharsis — is something of a mystery, simply because it makes no attempt to offer any solutions. Emotionally speaking, the final shots of Against the Current are some of the bleakest you’re likely to see, and yet they fail to trigger the emotional reaction for which writer and director Peter Callahan is obviously striving.
Joseph Fiennes plays Paul Thompson, the damaged individual who one day announces to his bartending buddy Jeff (Justin Kirk) his intention to swim the entire 150-mile length of the Hudson River (presumably without getting his hair wet as he swims the entire distance with his head above the water). He offers no reason for his decision at the time, other than that it was something they had always talked about doing. ‘We also talked about driving around in a convertible with Babe Ruth’s skeleton,’ Jeff helpfully reminds him, thereby establishing himself as the light relief in an otherwise morose tale. The faintest hope of romance and salvation is offered by the third member of Paul’s team, Liz (Elizabeth Reaser, from the Twilight movies), a sort-of friend of Jeff’s who just sort of comes along for the ride. It’s only after starting the gruelling endurance test — it’s more of a psychological challenge than a physical one, Paul tells Liz, although neither she nor I were convinced — that he reveals his intention to commit suicide upon completing the swim, which is scheduled to end on the fifth anniversary of his wife’s death. This sets up the moral dilemma at the heart of the movie, because when Paul was talking of killing himself immediately after her death, Jeff talked him into giving it five years, promising that if he still felt the same then he wouldn’t stand in his way. As Jeff now says to Liz, ‘what good is giving your word to your friend if you’re not going to keep it?’
The trouble is that’s about as deep as Callahan’s exploration of the issue goes. The two friends share a couple of desultory, inconclusive conversations which resolve nothing and take the situation no further forward, and a growing romance between Paul and Liz might as well not take place. It tells us Paul still has the desire to connect, but we knew that anyway because the movie opens with a scene in which he rather ungallantly allows a young woman to invite herself out of his apartment after spending the night with him. Therefore, we can only assume the romance is included in the plot to add a touch of will he-won’t he suspense — something which it unfortunately fails to create.
The deficiencies in plot and structure are compounded by the fact that Paul essentially becomes a supporting character in his own story. It’s Jeff who shoulders the burden of the dramatic and emotional scenes, and while Kirk is a good enough actor, he’s badly miscast in the role, a fact that’s emphasised by the unconvincing scenes in which his character enjoys a one night stand with Liz’s promiscuous 20-year-old sister. Kirk also has a tendency to play a little too much to the camera and put me in mind of a kind of toned-down Jeff Goldblum before he became a mass of facial tics and gestures. Fiennes does reasonably well with what he’s given, but you’d expect such a role to test his acting skills a lot more than it does. Overall, Against the Current is little more than a mildly interesting diversion.