Now about that other film based on a true story of unlikely survival at sea… Far more quiet, far more modest, and far more successful and distinctive than Captain Phillips is this haunted little work of modern folklore from Iceland, which, like Gabriel García Márquez’s Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, chronicles the experience of an ordinary seaman who somehow lived through a catastrophe that brought a swift demise to every one of his colleagues. The Deep, directed by Baltasar Kormákur and adapted by Jon Atli Jonasson from his own play, is one of those eerie, strange and deeply empathetic stories that imposes little and leaves a more lasting impression for it.
Gulli (Olafur Darri Olafsson) and his fellow fishermen set out from their Westmann Islands home in their rusty trawler one March morning in 1984. A routine day turns tragic when technical problems cause the ship to capsize in the unfathomably cold waters of the North Atlantic. Everyone quickly succumbs to the brutal elements, yet Gulli, despite—or who knows, perhaps because of—the fact that he was clearly the pudgiest, schlubbiest of the bunch, manages to hang on. He stays afloat under the hard night, beholds the Northern Lights ribbon green across the sky, attempts conversation with a seagull, says his prayers, itemizes his regrets, slips into prolonged reveries, recalling an volcanic eruption and evacuation that marked his childhood. Eventually he washes up on land. Doctors are baffled. His survival is regarded as a miracle. He’s talked into participating in laboratory tests to try and find out what it was about his constitution that granted him reprieve from what should have been an inescapable watery grave. In the end, it’s just one of those things.
The Deep ends with Gulli back on the water, smoking, as mystified as anyone else. Kormákur is very good with keeping Johansson’s telling spare and visual. We get a strong sense of the community from which Gulli hails, their ways of dealing with life in a frigid climate: heavy drinking and merriment, close family ties, big beards, and learning to scrape just enough frost off the windshield to get where you’re going. It isn’t hard to relate to these characters or the simple working lives they lead. And it isn’t hard to share in their grief and wonder at the events that shatter their calm and yet prompt them to keep moving forward into a life that every now and then eludes explanation.