With Halloween fast approaching, now is the perfect time to binge horror movies. The autumn season dictates all kinds of ghost stories, creature features, and slasher flicks, but it’s good to switch things up too and throw some grounded thrillers into the mix.
Jason Voorhees and the Predator are terrifying, sure, but we know those Bozos can’t hurt us because they only exist in movie-land. But certain survival horror stories can chill us to the bone in a way that other films can’t. We can all imagine getting lost in the woods or blowing out a tire on an abandoned stretch of highway. Director Rob Grant’s latest picture, Harpoon, taps into these relatable fears and tells an unnerving tale about three friends people stranded on a yacht as it drifts across the ocean.
Harpoon works best if you go in blind, so I’ll keep the synopsis vague. This picture’s few pleasures come from the plot’s wild twists and turns. Let’s just say, Jonah (Munro Chambers), his best friend Richard (Christopher Gray), and Richard’s girlfriend, Sasha (Emily Tyra), each has some issues to work out. They board Richard’s yacht to patch things up, and they end up getting lost at sea. Accidents happen, truths are revealed, and simmering tensions rise to the surface. And it’s all narrated by Brett Gelman.
Some films lack heroes, and I’m cool with that. I’m down to spend two-plus hours with an anti-hero or morally grey protagonist. And make no mistake, Harpoon’s three main characters are all shitty people. I’ve rooted for shitty people on shows like You’re the Worst and Difficult People, and in movies like Young Adult and As Good as it Gets. But as Harpoon went on, the only thing I rooted for was the final credits. I don’t know how I would hold up if this film were longer than its svelte 80-minute runtime. Jonah, Richard, and Sasha have no redeeming qualities as human beings or as compelling movie characters.
These three characters carry a sense of entitlement that makes them come across as obnoxious. Their dialogue and actions reveal that on some conscious or subconscious level, they believe in a cosmic sense of balance. They walk around with resentment towards the world when life doesn’t go their way.
These jabronis literally enact their demand for balance upon each other, by asking for physical reparations when one of them wrongs another. They beat each other up to restore order to their “friendship.” And without getting too spoiler-y, there are more examples of these three having massive chips on their shoulders. They come off as whiny little entitled assholes.
And look, that’s all good. Watching toxic people get under each other’s skin is often hilarious. Rian Johnson gives us a magnificent example of a toxic character study in his upcoming movie, Knives Out. The difference is, Johnson makes his characters interesting whiny, entitled, assholes. Harpoon’s three leads simply aren’t compelling characters.
The film begins with a great monologue about the different types of friendship we encounter in life and the ways that we maintain them. The opening moments hook us with a fascinating premise about old friendships gone awry. But the movie gives us no reason to believe these clowns were ever friends. They’re nothing more than awful people doing awful things to each other, and the film doesn’t provide a reason to be invested in their nonsense.
The actors don’t have the charisma to add depth to these shallow characters. And much of the script’s terrible dialogue doesn’t help their case. Grant and Mike Kovac’s screenplay isn’t half as funny as it thinks it is. This film aspires to be a horror/comedy, and it fails on both fronts. There’s plenty of quippy dialogue amidst the black humour, but it all feels forced and falls flat — especially the many lame call-backs.
Gelman chimes in every now and then as the film’s narrator and gives a suitably smug performance. (He’s the most appealing character in the movie, and he doesn’t even appear in it). Gelman narrates what transpires as if he’s in on the sick cosmic joke, and these moments breathe comedic energy into the movie and serve as a welcome respite from listening to the “energy vampires” onboard the boat.
On the bright side, Harpoon features a catchy pop soundtrack. The up-tempo tracks will leave you tapping your foot, even though the tunes don’t feel like they vibe with the rest of the movie. I get that the filmmaker is intentionally creating a sense of dissonance, contrasting the grim circumstances surrounding his characters with the peppy music. But the tracks don’t quite mesh, as though they hang around a few beats too long when transitioning into a scene.
Harpoon is a mixed bag when it comes to visuals. The movie does get playful with its editing. It’s broken up into segments that get announced by a narrator and title cards. Every now and then, the film cuts away to black and white flashbacks that play out in grainy little boxes. And the camera isn’t afraid to home in on the movie’s over-the-top violence. There is plenty of oozing blood and gaping wounds to keep gore-hounds content.
DP Charles Hamilton’s cinematography doesn’t bring much to the table, though. It’s all quite functional but lacks pizazz. The editing, compositions, and camera movement don’t heighten the dire circumstances onboard the ship. At no point do we ever feel the claustrophobic tension that comes from getting trapped onboard a yacht. A more dynamic style of photography would make the viewer feel like the walls are closing in. And we never feel the looming threat of the sea, either. The ocean is almost incomprehensible in its power and scale. The ocean’s potential fury and wrath even humbles withered old sea captains who spent their life on the water. But in Harpoon, the sea never feels like a threat; it’s tame
If Harpoon’s script produced stronger characters or the cast elevated the material, then this film might have hooked me. But it didn’t come anywhere close to nailing those essential tenets to an appealing story. And the straightforward filmmaking doesn’t apply the tools of cinematic language to make the film work on a visceral level, either. This flaccid picture lacks the muscle needed to succeed as a horror or a comedy.