There’s just something appealing about thrillers set on a boat. Whether it’s a sailboat, a yacht, or a cruise ship, they represent a pocket of inescapable isolation for the characters. Its horror counterpart, the cabin in the woods, at least offers an out in the form of the woods themselves, but there’s absolutely nowhere to go when you’re stuck on a boat with bad people. From Ruggero Deodato’s Waves of Lust (1975) to Phillip Noyce’s Dead Calm (1989), terrible things can happen on a three-hour cruise. The latest film to set sail under similarly treacherous conditions is Rob Grant‘s highly entertaining Harpoon, a fun-loving but mean-spirited ride on the open water that delivers fast, satisfying thrills.
It was supposed to be a fun afternoon at sea, but the thing bringing three friends together for the day might just be the thing that ends their friendships forever. Jonah (Munro Chambers) is a mopey good guy who’s begrudging best friends with Richard (Christopher Gray), a wealthy young man with a short fuse. Between them sits Richard’s girlfriend Sasha (Emily Tyra) who’s weathered the brunt of his temper but can’t quite bring herself to walk away from the luxury he provides. A misunderstanding leads Richard to suspect the other two are cheating on him with each other, and while it’s cleared up after he pummels Jonah’s face it leaves a rift between them. He invites the pair on an afternoon cruise by way of apology, but what should have been fun in the sun instead takes a turn when engine trouble, insults, and secrets combine to ruin the trip for everyone.
Director/co-writer Grant makes a combustible concoction with Harpoon‘s three characters and single location, and at a brisk 83 minutes the film doesn’t waste a frame. Sharply believable dialogue and unexpected story beats keep things moving even after the yacht comes to a standstill, and we begin to feel not only the physical confines of the boat but also the quickly unwinding strands of friendship and sanity.
None of the three characters are all that likable, but they’re definitely recognizable meaning you buy into their individual choices and actions both before and after things get bloody. The script is a big part of that, but the actors do good work convincing each other and viewers alike of their motivations before both secrets and bodily fluids are spilled alongside secrets and revelations. Once their already tenuous relationship — friends and lovers alike — begins to crack the film becomes a mean race to the end, but as cruel as it sometimes gets both Grant and his actors keep things incredibly entertaining.
It’s a grim thriller, but good gravy is it also a very funny one. The film teases the likes of Danny Boyle’s brilliant Shallow Grave (1994) at times with its rubber-band alliances and crumbling allegiances, and as with that film you’ll find yourself torn between enjoying the misery these fools bring upon themselves and maybe, secretly, cheering for one of them to find their way back to shore. While many of the joys come from the antics on the screen, there’s equal fun to be had with Brett Gelman‘s narration. Our omniscient friend introduces aspects of the tale, but more than that he offers insight into the philosophy of friendship, the long list of things you absolutely should never bring on a boat, and more. Gelman’s voice and verbal cadence are a perfect fit for these observations.
Harpoon travels familiar waters with its tale of friendships gone bad, but the motion of its ocean is a wholly entertaining and wickedly fun ride. See it before your next boating trip with the people you call friends.