First time director Emanuele Della Valle knocks it out-of-the-park in his feature film debut, Wetlands. The film is neo-noir that delivers on character authenticity and effective storytelling. Set in the doldrums of Atlantic City, the plot revolves around Babel ‘Babs’ Johnson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a cop that’s attempting to get his life back together and become present in his daughters life. The only thing in his way he must overcome are personal demons, a local mob and an impending hurricane. Nothing to sweat there.
A character driven film, there is no real villain in the movie, just some people who make worse choices than others. The lives of these locals intermingle with another, usually resulting in a messy situation, from affairs to committing crimes. That’s also what separates it from other classic neo-noirs. Della Valle doesn’t attempt to thrive on action and gun violence, instead the focus is on the characters and their inner and outer struggles, in that aspect it’s very much a drama.
Akinnuoye-Agbaje does great work portraying a recovering addict that’s also trying to find his way as a cop again. He reminds me a lot of David Oyelowo in terms of acting presence and delivering a powerful performance through his calm and subtle demeanor. He doesn’t have to say or do much, yet you understand the struggle his character is dealing with. To think this man was covered up and unrecognizable in Suicide Squad as Killer Croc is unfortunate. Akinnuoye-Agbaje has all the tools to be a leading man and it shows in this film.
Aside from Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s strong performance, the supporting cast is rounded out by some familiar faces such as Heather Graham, who plays Bab’s ex-wife, Christopher McDonald as the murky Det. Paddy Sheehan, Jennifer Ehle and Anthony Mackie. Needless to say all of them bring something interesting to the table in terms of their characters and involvement in the plot.
The look of the movie really sells itself as a major character. The New Jersey wetlands are heavily featured and add to the somber, dreary, dark and brooding theme. The visuals suggest as if it’s all taking place in some remote isolated location in the middle of nowhere, but the frequent backdrop of the Atlantic City pier brings up a reminder of the contrast of two different worlds that are only close in proximity.
Wetlands doesn’t have a whole lot going on plot wise, but that’s also the allure of the movie as it wouldn’t work well if the focus was on anything besides the characters and their struggles. As much as negativity is the fuel for the status of these people being stuck in their misery, Babs represents a hope and change, a light at the end of this dark tunnel. Even though I can’t relate to the world these characters live in, but I can relate to the human story that they are portraying. There is a sense of reality that takes precedent. If you can stick through the slower paced story, with limited action and invest in the characters then this is a movie worth seeing.