Submerged (2015)

Starring Jonathan Bennett, Talulah Riley, Rosa SalazarSubmerged

Directed by Steven C. Miller

I have sat through more than my fair share of truly awful films in the horror and thriller genres, but I have come to find that there is something far more flagrant in a decently made film rife with missed opportunities over an outright display of filmmaking ineptitude. It is especially frustrating to see a movie lay out all of the components for an engaging and driving plot or surefire suspense-laden set pieces, but instead decide to bypass the obvious road signs to success for questionable attempts at narrative subversion and drab emotional conflicts.

Such is the case with Steven C. Miller’s latest independent thriller Submerged, which sees Mean Girls heartthrob Jonathan Bennett making his first foray into hero territory. Unfortunately, Miller’s underwhelming film will not be the catalyst for Bennett’s rise to leading man status.

The film follows Matt (Bennett), a former Army Ranger turned private driver who works for much maligned businessman Hank Searles (Tim Daly, “Madame Secretary”). Matt’s main task is to look after Hank’s college-age daughter, Jessie (Riley), while she is home during a break from NYU, even if it means chauffeuring Jessie and her friends around for a drunken night on the town. One such night takes a turn for the worst as a handful of kidnappers set their sights on Jessie in a grander plan to strike back at Searles. Though Matt attempts to keep Jessie and her friends safe in the midst of the ensuing high-speed chase, their pursuers ultimately send the limo crashing off of a bridge into a lake. As the limo sinks and the oxygen slowly runs out, Matt and the others must work fast to find a way out of the vehicle before it’s too late.

While the premise of Submerged lends itself to an expectantly claustrophobic experience high on tension, neither Miller nor screenwriter Scott Milam make proper use of the underwater setting to its full potential. You would think that a film set up on such grounds would see Matt utilizing his Army background to find an inventive way to freedom; instead, he spends much of his time in the driver’s seat reflecting on what got him to this point, guiding the film with flashbacks while the folks in the back shriek and holler.

The particularly uninspired banter among Jessie’s friends  — most of whom become insufferably obnoxious after about ten minutes — does nothing for the film’s thriller aspirations. They spend their time inexplicably arguing about who fooled around with whom and what other largely unrelated personal secrets are being kept within their midst, and none of this ultimately forwards any aspect of the plot along. By the end, not one of their petulant rants has inspired the kind of sympathy that Milam’s script may have hoped for, a major misstep in a film that keeps its characters in such tight quarters for so long. The attempts at meaningful character development here ultimately fail in comparison to what we have seen in other more effective single-setting survival films like Adam Green’s Frozen or Neil Marshall’s The Descent. All the while, Jessie spends just about the entirety of the underwater scenes knocked out in the passenger seat — and she is by far the luckiest person in the limo for it.

For the bulk of the film in the present, Matt himself remains stuck in the driver’s seat with his leg impaled by an unspecified object, tortured by the fact that he feels he has failed Jessie and his own family. Most of the flashback scenes that are inter-cut with the moments in the limo center on his relationship with his younger brother, Dylan (Cody Christian, “Teen Wolf”). While the backstory between the siblings is on the whole quite unrelated to the greater mystery behind the attack on Jessie, it proves to be the most emotionally resonant aspect of the film. The performances from Bennett and Christian as brothers are refreshingly genuine in the midst of a film that so heavily wants to sell itself through pseudo-realized action and suspense. It’s hard not to wonder what the movie would have been like had it found a way to more prominently focus on their connection as a significant catalyst for the greater turns in the film. Unfortunately, such notable dramatic moments are sparse overall.

Submerged ultimately wants to focus on shaping Matt as a hero, but it doesn’t seem to know how to do so. Milam’s script very counter-productively sees Matt often doing literally nothing in the face of peril; at one point, he even rolls up the partition and turns off the speaker to the back of the limo so that he doesn’t have to listen to the bickering, although we don’t really blame him for this. By the film’s end, he is relegated to a sad punching bag scrapping to save Jessie’s life — and that’s not an understatement, as he really does get beat on a lot in the final act. At that point, it’s truly confounding that Miller and co. thought this was a fitting way to wrap up the character’s journey. To his credit, Bennett does his best to rise to the occasion with what he has been given, but that doesn’t stop the blows from coming: Even after escaping his underwater prison and tracking down the bad guys, Matt doesn’t get to deliver the final blow of death to the mastermind in the end. Talk about twisting the knife.

On the note of Miller’s final act, it is surprisingly entertaining when all is said and done, but only because of how incredibly silly it gets. The final showdown is a big, ridiculous hodgepodge of double-crosses and scenery-chewing monologues (we see no fewer than three “twists” take place, two of which are straight out of left field). In its tonal shift to unapologetic, corny action film, Submerged starts working in a very different way, but this over-the-top enjoyment is brief and comes all too late in the game.

Submerged is not an outright terrible film, but it is a very forgettable one that, to its greatest disadvantage, makes little use of a set piece that should have been wielded to tap into some real phobic terror. The initial premise promises much more intrigue than it actually delivers, and the troubled script presents far too many flat characters, which makes for a tedious ride that is suffocating in its banality. There is indeed an interesting level of commentary on the disparity between social classes hiding somewhere here, but ultimately the film is all too mired in its half-realized aspirations to make any kind of greater statement on society. For a more enjoyable set of chills and thrills, you would do better to check out 2012’s Silent Night, Miller’s loose remake of Silent Night, Deadly Night that showcases the kind of fun the director can have when properly motivated.

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Ari Drew

I like my horror with a little stank on it.

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