It was only last week that Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur had a theatrically released film with the fun, fast paced, box office topping action thriller 2 Guns, but there’s no better time than now to celebrate the other film he produced last year. No, not the Mark Wahlberg starring Contraband, which was itself Kormakur remaking Reykjavik-Rotterdam, which he didn’t direct, but he actually starred in.
Returning to his Icelandic roots, The Deep shows Kormakur as a much more diverse and interesting filmmaker than North American audiences might know him as now. Based on a true story, this tale of survival, loss, and a search for answers to existential questions, feels like three really great and separate movies all in one package.
A fishing boat is setting out from the wintry North Atlantic coast of Iceland on a trip some of the crew are already dubious of. After a few foreboding slip ups, a snag on the rocks inverts the ship entirely, leaving the crew to fight for their lives. One man, Gulli (Olafar Darri Olafsson), lasts in the frigid water swimming to shore for almost six hours before then walking approximately two more hours to get help. His story becomes almost mythical, with many claiming his survival as a miracle. Upon his return, Gulli has to come to terms not only with survivor’s guilt, but also with everyone poking and prodding him to find out why he was able to last the night while everyone else on board couldn’t.
The initial set up for The Deep suggests a story of bonding among fishermen. The characters, save for Gulli, aren’t incredibly deep and rich, but they have enough personality and nuance to make you feel for them. It spoils nothing to give away their ultimate fate, since this is both a true story (with the real life inspiration speaking throughout the credits) and the capsizing of the ship coming approximately 25 minutes into the film. It’s a harrowing sequence that showcases Kormakur’s ability to mount large scale set pieces, but it also underlines just how much character he’s able to pack in the short amount of time that came before it.
The middle section of the film is where the exemplary performance from Olafsson takes centre stage and the film briefly becomes an agonizing to watch one man show. Gulli nearly gives up several times, flashing back to the last time he ever felt that terrified as a child in the wake of a volcanic eruption. He pleads with God for one last moment with his mother and tries to make a deal where he could be struck down immediately after that. He talks and jokes with seagulls in hopes they could lead him to land. When he does find land, it’s as inhospitable as possible. He’s forced to walk over jagged, igneous rocks barefoot once the surf stopped banging him against the coastline repeatedly.
Such pain and will to survive is hard to convey properly, but Olafsson and Kormukar create a visceral rawness to the endeavour. It’s a tour de force 20 minute section of film that’s harrowing and tough to watch. It’s the kind of thing most films would save for their climax, but here it’s merely the second act to a larger story, and while things do slow down considerably once the actual shipwreck has passed, Olafsson continues to portray Gulli not as heroic or an iconic survivalist, but as a humble everyman who just wanted to live and go on with his life.
The final third, for all its talk of unexplained miracles and the confounding attempts to find a concrete scientific reason why Gulli was able to survive, is surprisingly devoid of religious allegory and preaching. He’s dreadfully out of shape, overweight, and a smoker and drinker. By all logic, he should have been dead the second he hit the water. Gulli doesn’t really care what they find out about his body. He just stays happy to be alive without dwelling too much on the how or why. It’s a novel twist as far as movies about the triumph of the human spirit go. It just accepts that sometimes miracles can be uniquely human constructs and not the machinations of a higher power that might have had things turn out differently.
The one-two punch this month of both The Deep and 2 Guns is a much better introduction to Kormakur’s work than his English language debut, and showcase a diverse set of skills that make him someone to keep a close eye on. They couldn’t possibly be more different, but both are pretty great in their own way. This one has a lot more emotional and narrative weight to it, but it’s great that this one (which saw stateside release earlier this summer and played at TIFF last year) is at least getting to theatres here to cash in on his latest success.