Split Decision: Thrills on the Water
Welcome back to Split Decision! Each week, we pose a question to our staff of knowledgable and passionate film geeks and share the responses! We may never know if it is legal to park in the center of Broad Street, but we’ll answer movie questions all day long. Chime in on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below!
This week’s question:
In honor of Serenity opening this week, a “sexy noir” starring Matthew Mcceunaghey as a fishing boat captain on an island, what is your favorite thriller set on the water?
While I really like Dead Clam, I'm going to go with The Last of Sheila, a witty mystery from 1974—co-written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins!—about a group of friends on a yacht. Their secrets and lies are revealed over the course of an intricate game, and when a murder occurs, things really get nasty. Deliciously bitchy, The Last of Sheila is certain to keep viewers guessing up to the end.
While it's not my favorite, the first thing that comes to mind is Leviathan. It's one of the finer Alien knockoffs out there. Leviathan swaps outer space for the ocean and the alien for a sea creature which, if memory serves, may be an alien. But as cheesy as it is, it's legitimately intense, and the creature design is impeccable.
I won't spoil too much, but I think it's worth noting that the very end of this movie contains not just a prolonged "the black guy actually made it!" joke, but also Robocop punching a woman in the face. It's pretty amazing.
I see your Leviathan and meet you with mine, a 2012 documentary about how terrible it is to work on a fishing boat. The film's backstory is already famous-- the directors show up to film a more straightforward documentary, ditch their big cameras and decide to record everything with a dozen GoPros-- but actually watching this Leviathan makes it clear this is more than just a gimmick. We don't get any talking head interviews, we don't see the lives the fishermen are leaving behind on land, we just see what a fish sees as it's unloaded onto a ship's deck (it's legitimately uncomfortable!), or what it looks like when a crew struggles to pull a net in. It's a disorienting, tense movie, in part because the GoPros are tiny and roll around, so you never feel anchored enough to one point to relax. If you want to see some menacing water, Leviathan is a good place to start.
I'm going to have to go with René Clément's Purple Noon (1960). While the entire film does not take place on a boat, the scenes that do are so evocative that it's hard not to think back on the film without picturing the sun-drenched deck of the boat. The second thing that comes to mind is the extremely taut, slow-burning plot. Based loosely on Patricia Highsmith's 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, the film follows Tom (the heartthrob Alain Delon, in his first major role) as he attempts to persuade Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) to return from Italy to run his father's company in the States. For those of you who have seen or read any iteration of Ripley, you will be all too familiar with the highly tense unraveling of Tom's peculiar obsession with his friend Philippe. If you somehow are not familiar, I won't spoil anything for you (but get your life together, you chucklehead, and catch up). While Purple Noon is a slightly more nuanced take on a thriller, it is still an absolute anxiety-inducing experience. And did I mention Alain Delon?
I decided my original answers, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and The Poseidon Adventure (1972) were more adventure movies than thrillers, so I wanted to stump for a recent. but overlooked movie, The Finest Hours. This small scale thriller from Craig Gillespie (director of the similarly underrated Fright Night remake) manage to convey the sense of danger that comes from being out on the water. The film balances human drama and disaster porn aspects where each feels vital to the overall experience, which is focused on a dense of honor and duty in the face of the power of nature. After all, “in the Coast Guard they say you go out, they don't say you gotta come back.”
It doesn't get any better than Jaws when it comes to boat thrillers. The thing I loved most about that when I was growing up, was getting to know every square inch of that tiny little boat. It was so well spatially mapped out, I felt like I was on it with Chief Brody, Hooper and Quint. Which made it extra terrifying when the shark starts tearing it to shreds.
I haven't seen it in years, but the first movie that came to mind for me was U-571 (I love my WWII historical dramas!). It has a pretty epic cast consisting of Matthew McConaughey, JON BON JOVI, Bill Paxton, and Harvey Keitel. It's about a team of American Allied forces that are sent to retrieve an Enigma machine on board a disabled German U-boat for further study. Of course the mission quickly devolves, and the crew is forced to take the German crew as hostages as German and Allied forces alike descent on their position. A submarine is the perfect location for an action thriller because it provides a plethora of ready-made challenges to overcome, and provides little to no chance for escape. You are literally stuck, miles below the surface of the ocean, in the dark depths of hell. It's a scary premise all on its own before you add the additional layer of it being wartime. I can't imagine hearing the muffled sounds of depth-charges above you, as you slowly sink lower and lower into the sea, waiting for the walls that surround you to start bursting with water. Not a fun time.