by Kathie Smith
Baltasar Kormákur’s The Deep is one of those rare examples of a narrative film based on real events that doesn’t ooze with exaggerated melodrama for false effect. Kormákur returns to his native Iceland after making his English language debut with Contraband (2012) and taps into the subtler skills that he displayed in his woefully underseen thriller Jar City (2006). With ample amounts of technical bravado, he crafts The Deep as a plainspoken tale of survival that walks right past unnecessary hyperbole, capturing instead the true grit of a seafaring tragedy and the full weight of a heavy-hearted, unintentional hero.
The story takes place off the southern coast of Iceland on Westman Island in 1984, where a volcanic eruption nearly devastated the community eleven years beforehand. Although the disaster does not directly play into the story of the film, the population that remains is defined by the hardship of the event, including the crew members of the fishing vessel about to meet its doomed fate. The leader of this ordinary-in-every-way pack is Gulli (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), a gentle giant who is too shy to approach a woman but ready to go to the mat for his friends and family. And on the eve of their departure, he does just that by standing up for the new guy who finds himself in a bar brawl.
Nordic Lights Film Festival
March 1 & 3
Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Producers: Baltasar Kormákur, Agnes Johansen
Writers: Jón Atli Jónasson, Baltasar Kormákur
Cinematographer: Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson
Editors: Sverrir Kristjánsson, Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir
Music: Daníel Bjarnason, Ben Frost
Cast: Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Stefán Hallur Stefánsson, Þröstur Leó Gunnarsson, Björn Thors, Walter Geir Grimsson, Þorbjörg Helga Þorgilsdóttir, Guðjón Pedersen
Premiere: September 7, 2012 – Toronto International Film Festival
US Distributor: Focus Features (VOD)
Hungover and tired but hardened by the fishing trade, the men head out into the turbulent and icy waters of the North Atlantic without a thought to what lies ahead. The film doesn’t waste much time, and shortly after departing, one of the boat’s nets snags and quickly capsizes the ship, pulling the entire vessel under—and leaving the men miles from shore. With waters hovering around freezing, the three men that surface don’t seem to stand a chance, physiologically or psychologically. As others go into shock and surrender to the dark inky waters, Gulli stays afloat and sees no other option than attempting to swim toward shore—guided by the lights of other boats and spurred on by the seagulls that seem to be watching over him.
The water-bound camera work, done with no aid from CGI and exploiting pseudo-ambient darkness, adds a remarkable verisimilar atmosphere. The wreck itself is handled with efficient in-the-moment aplomb, but it is Gulli’s eventual approach to the shore with sheer cliffs, rocks and bone-crushing waves that delivers some of the most rousing and terrifying moments in the movie. You can feel the threat and power of the roiling waves, to the point where you wonder about the safety of the cast and crew.
The climax comes early in the film and then offers a slow and somewhat toned-down resolution, which will disappoint some looking for more action-adventure. But Kormákur’s control over the subject matter is to be commended, unapologetically taking Gulli’s story to heart and avoiding more theatrical acrobatics. Gulli navigates the freezing waters, the treacherous coast, and very rugged terrain to collapse on someone’s doorstep and ultimately survive the impossible. The doctors test, poke and prod him, amazed that any man could endure the circumstances he did, while he shies away from the media’s attention, silently harboring his own survivor’s guilt. He goes to London for physical examination, but what he really wants is to return to normalcy and his life back on Westman Island. As the credits roll, we see the real Gulli in archival news footage, showing a scene reenacted in the film but more importantly offering a proof-positive explanation for the film’s disposition reflected in Gulli’s modest and simple personality.