For Those in Peril Dir. Paul Wright

[Protagonist Pictures; 2013]

Styles: breaking waves, folklore, devil-belly, psycho-drama
Others: Breaking the Waves

Half an hour into watching For Those in Peril, I texted my father (under whose name I write) if he’d be upset if I outright panned a movie. He said, “lay it 2 waste, kiddo.” His words of encouragement ringing like a proudly offered, “Nice catch, son!” I was downright giddy at the prospect of writing my first one-sidedly bad review. But then Scottish writer/director Paul Wright’s psycho-drama surprised me. Guess I’ll be disappointing my pops again ‚ėĻ.

The surprise was not a full ninth-inning comeback, but rather a gradual understanding that the slow-burning schmaltz of the first half of the film would inform the quick-fire revelations of the final act. What seemed sloppy and overwhelmingly transparent became clouded and refracted with an onslaught of revelations, real and imagined. This sort of retrograde exposition is obviously not new, but in a charming, even daring, turn, Wright (likely unknowingly) allows for two acts of poor practice to the end of finishing strong. It’s a film in parts (though not explicitly, as one of its key visual/thematic referents, Breaking the Waves, is), divided not into operatic movements, but into varying degrees of mediocrity.

A misfit Scottish teen loses his brother and a full crew of men (ambiguous agency intentional) and suffers the consequences. Aaron (George Mackay), the sole survivor of the boat outing, returns to his cloistered Scottish village to an overwhelming parade of guilt and ostracism. The guilt is his own: it is made (at first) exceptionally clear with interventions of home video, obsessive recitations of childhood memories and recent fears, whispered narration flooded with enough shouldas and wouldas to have sunk that ship. His brother has been swallowed by the beast (as stated in the stunted mythological framework of Aaron’s narration), and he must dive into the legends of the deep to rescue what he lost. The ostracism comes from his village, free of pitchforks but endowed with rather sharp (perhaps Biblically forked?) tongues. They hiss at Aaron for his possible implication in the local tragedy, but mostly for his uncanny otherness.

The problem is, viz this point in the film, that this guilt and ostracism seem like cheaply assigned affective threads. His guilt is too easy, too pointed, too schmaltzy. The home movies seem to serve no purpose other than visual variety, a collection of footage chosen postscript so narration does not fall on a blank screen. What can be read from these home movies is not the melancholic disintegration of the captured into the reproducible but unattainable past: it’s essentially the visual equivalent of what saying “I have a brother” signifies. The ostracism, too, seems unwarranted. Aaron’s odd, for sure — we have some convenient framing of the boy distanced from his peers to confirm this — but he certainly doesn’t seem the type to send his friends to a watery grave.

Yet, as Aaron grows more and more obsessed with finding his (presumed dead) brother, it becomes increasingly clear — or at least plausible — that the myths he knows will lead him to his brother are personal delusions and not collective superstition. The once-banal home videos begin to reveal more into what Aaron was pre-traumatically: perhaps equally unhinged. This re-informs the first acts — are we looking at an antagonized hero or the more modern archetype of the loner at a breaking point? His sanity is questioned, a sudden revision to our tenuous understanding of our story thus far. I must put forth here that mental illness should not be a plot twist (okay, Mr. Howard?), but what are his illusions and what are ours is left unclear. We reread everything we’ve learned so far with an infinity of choose-you-own-adventure surprises, finding meaning where there previously was almost certainly none.

Visually, For Those in Peril is interesting, though I refrain from using an adjective as cherry-picked as good. Cuts are frequent and often unmotivated, found footage interrupts narration incessantly, and I can find no reasonable explanation for the countless shots framed from behind Aaron at shoulder height other than a perverse fondness for the boy’s rather meaty neck. It pulls many choice visual phrases from a very current cultural vocabulary, using the muted tones, folkloric imagery, and misty-eyed melancholia so popular in the festival circuit and the Vevo-repertoire. A much-too-easy comparison is to last year’s runaway, Beasts of the Southern Wild, borrowing its elegiac mythos but failing to deliver itself from misplaced grandiosity with Beast’s ecstatic magical-realism.

For Those in Peril is an aggrandized fable, distilled into an individual tale of trauma and alienation. The words absent from the title — “for those in peril on the sea,” as the haunting country melody goes — are the operative ones. The sea is big and scary and full of monsters. So are people. That’s the basic analogy around which the story somewhat rockily rests. Where the mind ends and the sea begins, where myth melts into reality — these are grappled with but only unsatisfyingly resolved.

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