Film Review: Cannes 2013: Paul Wright’s FOR THOSE IN PERIL
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There is something about waves on film that is a crashing bore.
When a movie opens with a shot of the tide coming in, my eyes start to close.
It is the sound that does it, powerful, rhythmic, but one of the few examples of natural audio that does not appear to be made for the purpose of communication; wind whistling through trees, or the thrust of a tornado are others.
To me it is soporific, like the ticking of an alarm clock that you cannot sleep without. To others, the sound of the sea’s movement invites interpretation, encouraging those enraptured by it, the natural conspiracy theorists, to create their own mythology.
Could there be a devil underneath the water that snatches people and takes them prisoner? Highly unlikely! Yet it is this fantasy that grips Aaron (George Mackay), the seventeen-year old protagonist of Paul Wright’s debut feature, FOR THOSE IN PERIL.
Aaron has lost his older brother, Michael in an accident at sea. He was with him at the time. The exact details aren’t described, but there are people in the small fishing village where Aaron lives who reckon that he should not have come back.
If you think that’s a bit harsh, well, it is. You see, Aaron is what we would uncharitably call a special needs kid. He lived in his brother’s shadow. When he was bothered by bullies, his brother sorted it out. Aaron didn’t cultivate his own interests, but lived instead with and through his brother. Only his brother got a girlfriend, Jane (Nichola Burley). Aaron always hung around them, surplus to requirements. He doesn’t love Jane; he just wants his brother. After all, the boys don’t have a father.
Some would say that to restore equilibrium, Jane should have gone from the picture. But life does not do equilibrium. It does the unexpected. It took Michael.
Aaron wants him back. He’s convinced that Michael is trapped at the bottom of the sea. The body hasn’t been recovered. His fate is unresolved.
Small fishing villages don’t do grief counselling. In fact, the film is notable for the absence of consoling authority figures, those who have transcended life’s cruel twists, who can put themselves in the head space of the aggrieved and pull them back to their feet.
Aaron finds some solace talking to Jane. He tells her that he can bring him back. But Jane is grieving too. In the film’s most wrenching scene, she asks Aaron if she is beautiful and whether she loves, to be a substitute. Here are two people utterly wrong for each other, neither able to give what the other wants.
From an extremely unpromising opening, which mixes black and white with colour – the film features footage of the two brothers playing as kids, as if photographed on Super 8, and slightly more plausible mobile phone camera footage, where playing to the lens is built into the aesthetic – it gradually assumes Aaron’s twisted subjectivity. We watch in horror as he play fights with a younger boy and almost strangles him – he is not used to being the stronger of the two in a wrestling match. We see him make his raft and go after the sea monster. We regard his taking of another boy as a potential sacrifice to the beast – give a life, get a life. Fortunately, his victim gets away and Aaron is an extraordinary image but one that emphasises his feral nature, ends up in a fishing net.
Finally, he attempts to turn himself into a Merman. He cuts one side of his neck with a knife, then the other, crudely trying to create gills.
In another place he would have been sectioned for his potential to cause harm. In this movie, he volunteers to go for treatment, but doesn’t get there.
Then there’s the ending. To say it is bold and non-naturalistic is an understatement. It is not what you expect.
What I took most from the film was a moral about storytelling. You don’t tell your kids a legend about a sea monster and not know what it means. Myths are supposed to teach morality, to make you afraid and keep your safe, or at least obey society’s rules. The invented legend that is part Pied Piper part Loch Ness monster does not serve any obvious purpose. It does not make reality easier to understand as proper myths do; it is a mash-up.
That said, after a truly yawn inducing opening in which I feared the worst, the drama took hold. I wanted to know where Aaron’s madness would take him. Wright’s film is built on rocky foundations, though the grief, helplessness and determination of the central character pull you through. The performances are naturalistic, the final scene enigmatic. It makes a change for mimetic documentary style story-telling – at one point it suggests THE WICKER MAN – but it does not go the full MADAGASCAR SKIN. Does anyone remember Chris Newby?