For Those in Peril: Cannes Review
Cannes screening (Critics’ Week), May 18
George Mackay, Kate Dickie, Nichola Burley, Jordan Young, Michael Smiley
Paul Wright's Scottish psycho-thriller is a veritable "Beasts of the Northern Wild."
Set in a remote fishing village on the rugged northeast coast of Scotland, For Those in Peril is a strikingly original feature debut from the 31-year-old Scottish writer-director Paul Wright that resists simple categorization. Showing in Critics’ Week in Cannes, this lightly experimental psycho-thriller mixes social realism with magical realism, brooding human tragedy with arty abstraction. Theatrically, the broad accents of the main characters may prove a hurdle in some markets, perhaps even requiring English-language subtitles as they did in Cannes. All the same, this is a very strong first feature from a highly promising new writer-director, with potential for great word-of-mouth buzz and solid commercial prospects in the hands of sympathetic distributors.
George Mackay gives a plausibly shell-shocked performance as Aaron, the sole survivor of a mysterious fishing-boat accident that left his older brother and four others missing presumed drowned. Shouldering a heavy burden of survivor’s guilt, he becomes a virtual pariah in his village, the target of bitter resentment and dark rumor. As a psychological coping mechanism, he imagines his fellow fisherman have miraculously survived the accident, and fantasizes about rescuing them from the diabolical sea monster of his childhood fairy tales. Inside his tormented mind, Aaron is literally caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.
But Aaron’s frayed mental state leads to growing friction with his long-suffering mother - a powerful study in inner emotional turmoil from award-winning Red Road veteran Kate Dickie - while his flirtatious friendship with his brother’s grieving fiancee (Nichola Burley) enrages her brutish, sadistic father (Michael Smiley). Behind the ritual public displays of brotherly love and church memorials for martyred menfolk, a grittier back story emerges of fraternal bullying, romantic rivalry, blame and shame and small-town savagery. Even so, Wright keeps these darker elements agreeably nuanced, never reaching for monochrome motivations or easy explanations.
Scored to an ever-present background swell of mournful ambient rock, For Those in Peril combines multiple film textures including jerky camcorder footage, grainy TV news snippets, infrared night vision, blurry extreme close-up and flickering Super 8 for childhood flashbacks. Some viewers may find these restless shifts too self-consciously gimmicky, but there is method behind the madness, an audio-visual metaphor for Aaron’s disrupted and disjointed psyche. Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is a stylistic reference point here, in the poetic voiceover and patchwork of dreamlike imagery, while there is more than a hint of Behn Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild in the fusion of folksy maritime fable with looping, quasi-musical cadences.
To Wright’s credit, this sorrow-soaked psychodrama never descends into the bloodthirsty revenge thriller that seems to be lurking behind every corner. Instead, he keeps us guessing as to whether Aaron is merely suffering from post-traumatic stress, assailed by supernatural hallucinations, or hiding his true nature as a deranged killer, as more malicious village gossips speculate. Ultimately all of these explanations appear to be at least partially plausible, though the audacious final scene lifts the film from realistic character study to something altogether more mythic. Haunting and atmospheric, For Those in Peril proves that creeping grief and guilt can deliver just as much dread-filled dramatic tension as a straight horror movie.
Production companies: Warp X, Film4, BFI
Producers: Mary Burke, Polly Stokes
Starring: George Mackay, Kate Dickie, Nichola Burley, Jordan Young, Michael Smiley
Director: Paul Wright
Writer: Paul Wright
Cinematographer: Benjamin Kracun
Editor: Michael Aaglund
Music: Erik Enocksson
Sales company: Protagonist
Unrated, 93 minutes
Sundance: On the Scene