'The Surface': Film Review

Courtesy of Entertainment One
This character-driven drama could have delved more deeply

Sean Astin and Chris Mulkey star in this existential thriller about two men trapped on a small boat adrift in Lake Michigan

Uncomfortably straddling a thin line between adventure thriller and character-driven drama, The Surface is a largely  two-hander starring Sean Astin and Chris Mulkey that has the feel of an intimate theater piece despite its expansive outdoor setting. Although it clearly has big issues on its mind and manages to sustain interest throughout its brief running time, the film, as its title inadvertently indicates, doesn't delve very deeply.

We're first introduced to Mitch (Astin), whose unhappiness is signaled by his perpetual hangdog expression. Other than his dementia-addled mother who he goes to visit in her nursing home, he doesn't seem to have anyone significant in his life.

When he takes his late father's vintage boat out for a ride on Lake Michigan, things proceed uneventfully until he collides with the wreckage of a small plane. Clinging to one its pieces is its injured, unconscious pilot, who Mitch manages, with great effort to drag into his boat.

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When he comes to, the bloodied man, Kelly (Mulkey), is less than grateful to his savior. He instead reacts with suspicion and hostility, mostly concerned with guarding his backpack. Although their initial interactions are filled the threat of violence—Kelly, despite suffering a broken arm, manages to pull out a knife—the two men settle into a tense truce, floating helplessly in the massive body of water with no means of communication and the boat's propeller sheared off.

Eventually they begin revealing their secrets, with Mitch's solo voyage turning out to be no mere diversionary jaunt and Kelly confessing that he's involved in nefarious activities. The latter also turns out to be something of an amateur psychologist, attempting to get to the bottom of Mitch's depression by asking him if was delivered via caesarean or natural childbirth and later advising him, "You need to get a dog."

Ensuing flashbacks further reveal the backstories of the two men, including a horrific workplace incident involving Mitch and Kelly's relationship with his wife (a briefly seen Mimi Rogers).

Working from a schematic script by Jeff Gendelman, director Gil Cates, Jr. manages to invest the proceedings with a reasonable amount of suspense. And while the watery action pales in comparison to the recent All is Lost, the filmmaker does an efficient job of presenting the logistical mechanics in clear and credible fashion.

But despite the performers' fine efforts—veteran character actor Mulkey is particularly compelling as the emotionally volatile pilot—The Surface fails to make its existential themes meaningful or sufficiently interest us in the fate of its characters.  It instead feels simply waterlogged.

Production: Shoreline Entertainment, Good Note Productions, JimmyMakesMovies
Cast: Sean Astin, Chris Mulkey, Mimi Rogers
Director: Gil Cates, Jr.
Screenwriter/producer: Jeff Gendelman
Executive producers: Ken Delman, Jim Cacmarcik
Director of photography: Jimmy Sammarco
Production designer: Jessica Kaminski
Editor: Sherwood Jones
Costume designer: Bethany Michaels
Composer: Jeff Russo
Casting: Danielle Aufiero, Amber Horn

Not rated, 86 min.

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