There is something about the ocean that can turn a mind to madness. Faced with the unending expanse, multiple protagonists (from films like Open Water, All Is Lost, The Mercy, Crowhurst and Adrift) have found themselves engaged in a fight not only against their environment, but with themselves. In this intriguing, impressive feature debut from Winston Azzopardi, however, one man finds himself driven to the edge not only by the elements, but also the very vessel on which he sails.
A clever, twisting, dialogue-free screenplay
Following The Boat’s premiere at Fantastic Fest, further festival interest should be strong; while the story may appeal to genre-skewing events, the high level of craft and talent on show here should see it secure more mainstream berths. With multiple-territory deals already secured, it could be further buoyed by strong word of mouth.
On a beautiful summer’s day in Malta, an unnamed man (Joe Azzopardi) heads out to fish in his small row boat. All is idyllic until, suddenly, the weather turns and a thick fog descends. In the gloom, he butts up against a gleaming white yacht named the Aeolus — derived from the ancient Greek for ‘nimble’ — motionless in the water. Boarding, he finds the cabin utterly deserted; back on deck, he is shocked to find his own boat has vanished. He is adrift and alone, tiny against the horizon.
At this point, it seems as if The Boat is treading familiar waters. Yet, it’s not long before the clever, twisting, dialogue-free screenplay — co-written by Joe Azzopardi with his father Winston, who also directs — begins to reveal its hidden depths. While the sailor clearly has some serious maritime skills, slowly but surely events begin to conspire against him. The boat jerks at random, sending him flailing across the deck. The sails flap ominously, seemingly with a mind of their own. And, just as things can’t get any worse, a broken lock traps him in the tiny bathroom.
From this point, and within this miniscule space, the tension rises at a rate of knots. As a storm rages and the boat fills with water, the sailor must utilise both his experience and his tenacity;. It is soon apparent, however, that he is locked in a battle of wits; perhaps, as the occasional sounds of footsteps and knocking suggest, with an unseen foe, or perhaps even with the boat itself. Subtle hints — bloody fingerprints, hidden food — suggest that he may not be the first to undergo such trauma; an angle that The Boat shares with 2009 nautical horror Triangle, which also takes place aboard a vessel called Aeolus.
As the only man on screen, and with minimal dialogue, Joe Azzopardi commands attention from the off. With the screenplay mercifully avoiding any soliloquies or rants, the physical and emotional toil of his predicament is instead etched on his face alongside the cuts and bruises. As bewilderment gives way to abject terror, and determination to desperation, the audience has no choice but to ride in his wake.
This is augmented by strong filmmaking craft. Cinematographer Marek Traskowski contrasts the stunning expanse of the seascape with the nightmarishly intimate proportions of the yacht to claustrophobic effect, while composer Lachlan Anderson’s emotive score works in harmony with both the relaxing undulations of the water and the sharp movements of the boat. Together with James Hayday’s expert sound design, which transforms the mundane — ropes slapping against the mast, the creak of a floorboard — into the uncanny, the boat takes on an uneasy personality all its own.