Remember the twenty-five minutes in the middle of Dead Calm (1989) where Sam Neill struggles to escape a sinking ship? The Boat is the suspense and tension of that sequence maintained for feature length, but with a taste of the supernatural. Or 2013’s All Is Lost which stars Robert Redford alone against a similar predicament? The Boat mirrors the drama and isolation of that film, but with a splash of the unnatural. While it reminds favorably of those two fantastic films, though, The Boat is wholly its own creation marrying survival against the odds with horror of the unknown in sequences that ultimately terrify, captivate, energize, and stress the the hell out of viewers.
An unnamed fisherman (Joe Azzopardi) in Malta heads out to sea in his small boat in pursuit of the day’s catch, but a lone and unmoored sailboat catches his eye. He ties up to it and calls out to see if anyone is in need of help, but with no response he climbs aboard to investigate. The boat is seemingly abandoned, but as he goes room to room it’s clear someone was recently there — a smear of fresh blood suggests it may not have ended well for them. Returning to the deck he discovers that his own boat is gone — did his rope simply come untethered or was it released intentionally? As a John Carpenter-worthy fog rolls across the water he moves quickly into survival mode, but with the engine not working, the radio capturing only silence, and the suspicion that he’s not alone weighing behind his eyes, survival may not even be an option.
Films featuring a single character aren’t common, and rarer still are the great ones, but The Boat sails quickly towards the top of the list. Azzopardi’s fisherman has no back story or baggage here and instead quite literally wakes up and motors directly into a nightmare. Rather than panic or start talking to himself — a clunky tool typically used to connect with audiences — he proceeds to assess the situation and find a way out of it. He captivates through his calm and confidence, and on the strictly survival side of things his knowledge and know-how work to inspire viewers towards even the smallest of cheer-worthy victories.
Seriously, there are at least a dozen obstacles here that would have left me for dead in my ignorance.
It’s refreshing to see such a capable character undaunted by his increasing challenges, and while his frustrations grow they don’t turn him away from the task at hand. Tension rises, though as his bad luck reveals itself as something far more ominous than mere chance. Something or someone is actively working against him, and as doors lock behind him and the boat steers towards additional dangers the question of who or what is at the helm takes second place behind the one regarding how he’s going to escape its grip.
At 100 minutes a film like this could easily risk losing steam, but the script by Azzopardi and director/co-writer/brother(?) Winston Azzopardi keeps things moving forward with a taut efficiency. There’s never a dull moment as there’s never really a down moment. The fisherman moves from one challenge to the next, each following a progression both natural and unnatural, and his composure only wavers in the most extreme situations — of which there are more than a few. The possible sound of footsteps on the deck above or of a rope being sawed catch his imagination and ratchet up the tension en route to an absolute gem of an ending. Genre films have a spotty track record in that department as filmmakers aren’t always confident in their exit strategy, but the payoff here is incredibly satisfying and almost suggests a begrudging appreciation of sorts in its denouement.
The score by Lachlan Anderson finds its own beauty and rhythm as it matches the sea’s balance between the calm and aggressive, and it kicks into propulsive overdrive during the film’s more immediate thrills. Cinematographer Marek Traskowski, meanwhile, has the daunting task of working equally well on the vastness of the open ocean and the tight confines of the sailboat. He succeeds in capturing both the isolation in vastness and the more claustrophobic interiors.
The Boat is a work of pure mastery as it blends a tale of survival at sea with a growing sense of dread and mystery, and the resulting experience is a taut and thrilling adventure into the unknown. It ranks easily among the year’s best horror films, best adventure films, and best films period. Welcome aboard indeed.