The Mercy

It is impossible, frankly, to write about this film without spoilers. It just cannot be done. That being said, it is arguable that the very idea of spoilers here is ridiculous, considering anyone can Google the name of Donald Crowhurst. My recommendation is don’t do it. Refrain from any such temptation, and watch this film first, as I did (and of course, don’t read any more of this post until you have)

mercy2So if you’re still here, I’ll assume you have either seen the film, have no interest in ever doing so, or already know the tragic story of Donald Crowhurst, a very human story of a flawed man who became his own undoing. I should begin by stating that Johann Johannsson brought me here, not the first time the late Icelandic composer brought me to a film that he had worked on, but sadly possibly the last. I only knew of The Mercy because its soundtrack was the last to be released prior to his sudden passing, and Johannsson was possibly the last film composer whose soundtrack albums I would buy heedless of the film or music itself. The music did not disappoint, with new material and old it teased a sombre and moody film.  I must say, having now seen the film, it is clear that Johannsson was the perfect choice for the film’s score- the music is typical of the composers work- intimate, fragile, tender, mournful, yet enlightened with moments of joy.

Which is where, I suppose, we now come to the film itself. As I have stated, I came to the film knowing nothing about the true story behind it- I only knew that it was some kind of sailing adventure, perhaps one of those stirring and daunting nautical tales of man against nature, likely similar to the film All is Lost. Well, I was both right and wrong.

The story, part mystery, part tragedy, is well known, apparently- though naturally it was new to me. Donald Crowhurst  (played here by Colin Firth) was a failing businessman and amateur yachtsman who took part in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race of 1968, a competition to be the first person to sail nonstop single-handedly around the world. Crowhurst was not a good enough sailor, was under-prepared, underfunded, handicapped by a boat that was unfit for purpose- but incredibly the competition did not scrutinise entrants for sufficient experience or ability. Crowhurst’s attempt was hopelessly doomed, but haunted by the threat of bankruptcy and ruin (his financier held Crowhurst’s house as collateral if he failed to finish the race), he stayed out at sea for 240 days and attempted to hoax the press and public that he’d managed the circumnavigation. Crowhurst believed that if he could convince, through fake log-books, that he had managed the voyage, if one of the other entrants won, he would not come under any scrutiny. His schemes unravelled when the majority of the other competitors dropped out during the daunting race and when it seemed that he would succeed in the setting of the fastest time, he realised he was undone and could not maintain the lie under the scrutiny of winning. While thousands, including his wife Clare and his children, waited his triumphant return home, Crowhurst could see no way out. Radio contact ended, Crowhurst disappeared, and when his trimaran was found, derelict in the mid-Atlantic under a single sail, there was no sign of him, and the log-books that he had left revealed a tale of a tragic fall into desperation and madness, a descent into oblivion.

mercy1The story of the failed hoax, when it broke, proved to be a huge scandal, but The Mercy wisely raises above just that story, and tells us about the flawed, driven individual who loved his family but whom fate and hubris drove him to tragedy (and left his wife and children to face the fallout). While it starts all light and positive, it takes a very dark turn that was quite unexpected by me. Indeed, its one of the most depressing films I have seen in quite awhile, but nonetheless a fascinating one. Colin Firth is very good at portraying the best in Crowhurst, perhaps less so in showing his failings. Inherently Firth has too noble a screen persona and while this ultimately works against the film it does mean the eventual twist and downfall is possibly all the more shocking. Rachel Weisz as his wife Clare proves to be the heart and soul of the film, albeit she is perhaps too beautiful, too perfect? Well, that’s an issue I have often found with Weisz, as she usually gravitates towards very normal, ordinary characters in her film choices, but here it raises the question of what fool of a man could ever leave this idyllic wife and mother of his children for a dangerous journey risking life and everything? As usual, David Thewlis is excellent: here playing the dubious, provincial hack reporter Rodney Hallworth, who was hired as publicist and whose hype and tall tales fanned the flames of race fever that would eventually drive Crowhurst to foolish ruin.

Its a very sober tale of the human condition, I thought, and I found this film to be both riveting and horrifying, frankly, especially as I had no idea of the story’s dark denouement. Carried along by the beautiful light and darkness of the music of Johann Johannsson, with all the poignancy that his own passing itself entails, I found this to be a very fine film. It feels very much like an anxiety-dream,  a terrible fall into hopelessness and quite harrowing.

The Mercy is currently available on Amazon Prime, and on DVD and Blu-ray.

Adrift (2018)

Adrift, based on a true story of a woman in 1983 surviving being set adrift at sea following a disastrous encounter with a hurricane, is competently made but suffers from being all too familiar. Which is odd enough, thinking about it, as it’s a remarkable enough story but it does seem like we’ve seen it before- most recently in films like All Is Lost or older films such as Castaway. Certainly in many ways this film is no worse than them, or other similar survival at sea thrillers. Its well made with a decent cast, great cinematography and effects. Its just a little unfortunate that it feels, well, so familiar.

Funny, though, when watching films like this- I keep thinking about Jaws, about how difficult that film was to get made, the logistical and technical challenges of filming out at sea, and how well films manage it now. I wouldn’t suggest it was anything easy, I guess it can still prove to be a nightmare, and at least in something like this they weren’t contending with a giant mechanical shark. All the same though, the underwater photography is particularly fine here and the effects work involved in the wide expanses of sea and the storm sequences is all very impressive.

Its a shame the film doesn’t fully engage. Its effective enough, but not really enthralling or as tense as it might have been. Perhaps it is the films structure that undermines it, the post-storm wreck and ensuing crisis being broken up into flashbacks that establish the characters and their past. A more conventional chronological set-up might have been better; might have encouraged our empathy more, but I suppose the way its done is an attempt to encourage a sense of mystery and interest and ensure the central ‘twist’ works (although I guessed it before it came).

Triple Frontier (2019)

tripleIts perhaps fortunate that I watched Triple Frontier in blissful ignorance of the pedigree of creatives behind it- in particular that it was directed by J C Chandor, who had earlier made two films I particularly enjoyed- All is Lost and A Most Violent Year. While I enjoyed Triple Frontier, it is clearly not in the same league as either of those two earlier films (in hindsight, maybe the casting of Oscar Isaac was a clue). From what I gather, Triple Frontier has had a long and protracted development history behind it (Kathryn Bigelow at one time marked to direct it, and a cast that at one time included Tom Hanks) – and it’s perhaps surprising that it has turned out as good as it has, or actually finally got made at all. At any rate, it’s probably not what I would call ‘a J C Chandor film’ in just the same way as several of Ridley Scott’s films were likely made as a ‘director for hire’ rather than a personal project (play a game, guess which ones). Which is a protracted way of me saying that I wouldn’t have enjoyed it quite so much had I been saddled with the expectations from the director’s name/past work. Sometimes you just have to judge a movie by itself, on its own terms.

So Triple Frontier (no, can’t say the title makes a lot of sense even after having seen the film) is a sort of old-fashioned action adventure/heist yarn, in which a bunch of embittered/financially challenged ax-Army Rangers buddies are recruited by one of their colleagues, who knows about a drug dealer down in a South American jungle whose millions of ill-gotten dollars could solve our heroes life problems. Hell, a premise like that, it could have been a great Predator sequel, but nevermind. So yeah, its part A-Team, part Sicario, part heist picture, part buddy picture, part man-against-nature picture. It should have been in all likelihood a terrible mess, and maybe it still is a bit of a mess, but it does actually work.

Sure, there are a few issues with the script, and characters making some odd choices just to further that script towards its various twists and plot-points, but that kind of thing can be inevitable from such a long gestation period and so many hands messing with it over the years. At any rate, the film does pack a few genuine surprises that I didn’t see coming.

It doesn’t hurt that it looks absolutely gorgeous. This is a movie with a capital ‘M’ and not at all what you’d expect – as I have noted before, some of these Netflix Originals are far beyond what might have been considered direct to video, or even tv movie, material, several years ago. There is some amazing location photography here and some great action sequences/stunt scenes. Maybe some of the visual effects don’t quite hold up to the scrutiny that this lovingly sharp and detailed image invites, but it really is quite cinematic. I don’t know what streaming compression Netflix is using but this film looked amazing in 4K, a real improvement on the fairly appalling compression artifacts and banding I suffered watching Voice from the Stone on Amazon a few nights ago.


All Is Lost (2013)

all1It’s curious how some movies share plots/themes with others. Sometimes its clearly a case of rival studios making competing films that are different spins on the same story- Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down are pretty much the same film but each with opposing approach (the former overly serious, the latter tongue-in-cheek fun). It happened years ago regards extinction event/deadly asteroids with Deep Impact and Armageddon (again, the former rather serious while the latter deliriously camp fun). Sometimes studios balk at launching expensive rival projects (usually one wins the box office and the other loses it) which results in one getting canceled (Baz Luhrmann’s Alexander project giving way to Oliver Stone’s film). But I guess its possible that films with similar subjects get made independently and ignorant of each other.

I don’t know if this was the case with All Is Lost, that its similarities were accidental, but the most immediate impression whilst watching J.C. Chandor’s film is the feeling that you’re watching Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity transposed to the ocean. Indeed I rather fear that many viewers will be distracted by the sense of deja-vu and dismiss All Is Lost as a rip-off and inferior. This would be unfortunate really, because All Is Lost is a great survival movie and character piece that benefits from its real-world setting and the lack of cgi spectacle that dominates so much of Gravity. Gravity, by its blockbuster nature, raised the stakes to huge levels and at times threatened its suspension of disbelief -indeed, in my own reading of the film, I believe the characters all perish early on and the ensuing events are Sandra Bullock’s near-death/post-death experiences similar to Tim Robbin’s character in Jacobs Ladder (there are simply too many happy coincidences/nearby space stations to be wholly realistic). Everytime Bullock pulls herself up on the shore at the end I expect to glimpse a little girl (her dead daughter) just on the edge of the final shot.

All Is Lost may be destined to forever suffer in comparison to its big-budget counterpart and sit in its very long shadow, but this would be a great shame. Both are great movies- its just that one is much quieter than the other. There’s nothing wrong with that, surely- maybe something superior even. All Is Lost is far less a blockbuster and much the better for it. Its a much quieter film, and slower-paced. Very often I reflected that the film reminded me of the films of the ‘seventies with its pacing and quiet thoughtfulness. There is hardly any dialogue at all, just a few muttered expletives really- it’s all about what we see, an exercise in Pure Cinema, far removed from how many modern movies explain everything through dialogue.The soundtrack is restrained, the (very good) Alex Ebert semi-ambient score mixed well into the superbly effective sound design.

all3Robert Redford is excellent- he plays a nameless mariner (simply named ‘Our Man’ in the credits) who awakens to find water in his cabin- he discovers that his yacht has been holed by a rogue shipping container during the night (so there’s another similarity to Gravity– in both films it’s junk that causes the ensuing drama; is there further meaning to that in both films?). In the middle of the wide expanse of the Indian Ocean, the mariner’s ship floats in complete isolation with its navigational and radio equipment ruined by the impact. The immediate danger seems minor, as he separates his boat from the container and starts makeshift repairs, but it becomes apparent that the yacht is dangerously harmed and following an ensuing storm the mariner’s attempt to survive becomes increasingly desperate. It’s a tale of survival against ever-increasing odds, of man dwarfed by, and at odds with, mother nature- the endless desolation of the ocean as indifferent and cruel as the cold depths of space are in Gravity.

We don’t learn much at all about our unnamed protagonist, except that as the events unfold he begins to re-examine who he is, what he has achieved and who/what he leaves behind should he die. In a similar way to the events of Gravity, it becomes a transcendent experience, the increasing closeness of death forcing a reappraisal of oneself. I had a sense that he isn’t a very nice guy, that while we empathise with his plight, he has a past unknown to us that wouldn’t really cast him in a very good light were it revealed (in one of his lowest moments he writes a last note and it is tinged with regret). It’s a tour-de-force from Redford, who incredibly was in his late seventies when this was shot, and this could well be considered one of his very best performances. His is the only character in the film, and Redford has to carry it completely on his own (in Gravity at least Bullock had other actors she could play off from). The mariners calm confidence is slowly chipped away by the unfolding events and his worn face starts to betray the quiet desperation he feels as his survival becomes ever unlikely. Its a great performance from Redford and a fine demonstration that not every leading man in a movie has to be young, fit and apparently unmarked by life (the one thing that bugs me about casting Keanu Reeves in John Wick, for instance, is that he hardly looks worn by the life of a hitman).

So if you can shake off the nagging sense of deja-vu when watching it, I’m sure you will be rewarded if you give All Is Lost a try. I’m certain it will eventually turn up on television with little fanfare and people will discover it (Redford himself was very critical of the films marketing on its theatrical release and its disc release has been similarly under the radar). Maybe it’s one of those films destined for reappraisal in years to come.