Some films don’t need to say a lot. They rely on image and close-up to determine the emotional turmoil of a character, or set of characters. Where Helen of Troy’s presence would launch a thousand ships, the washboard of an actor’s face has the potential to project a thousand words. Such is the case with The Deep, the recreated story of an Icelandic fisherman who defies scientific logic and survives unbearably cold, tortuous temperatures for as long as six hours. Many a similar scenario would have been encased in adventure territory, burdened by being made into an epic spiel, but Kormákur manages to control his own ship, choosing to focus in on the internal fight or flight of one fortunate fisherman.
What a fortunate fisherman he is as well. At least that’s how a reaction borne of immediacy would manifest, yet as our main character, Gulli, indicates, what fortune is there in surviving? All that he’s achieved is the most primitive of human instincts. He might have made it to the mainland and astounded the medical community, but for him, he has lost his dearest of friends and become further isolated from society, bordering on a freak show.
The Deep revels in its poignant seclusion of character: Gulli keeping above water reciting the Lord’s Prayer, his conversations with the seagulls, his excruciating, bone-crunching trek across jagged rocks. Yet, for all its inherently poignant situational plot points, this is a film that requires an absolution by an actor to encapsulate some of the realism of this experiential nightmare. Olafur Darri Olafson’s performance is so utterly convincing that it wouldn’t be surprising if people mistook him for the man around whom this film is based. It’s such committed execution of a impossibly alien sequence of events that it belies convention. Floating amidst the lapping waves, his dazed, almost transcendental journey transitions from horror, to acceptance, to loneliness and finally to a personal understanding of what needs to happen.
In most respects, this should be a dismaying film to watch and, to some degree it is, but the direction is such that we become utterly immersed in the idea that there can be beauty in the utter abhorrence of life. We notice things we shouldn’t. Gulli, seconds away from drowning, finally realises that he isn’t afraid of death, just the act of it. There is indeed something important in that relative separation of dying. People come to peace with what is to happen, even if the active part of death is sickening. Seeing your friend fall asleep amidst the darkness and floating gently to the bottom of the ocean needn’t be repugnant. Death can be as precious as life. It just takes a special, life-changing event to caress your understanding towards a different way of thinking.