Harpoon‘s title is deliberately misleading; Hatchet or Velvet Buzzsaw this ain’t. The harpoon — or, as one character is repeatedly corrected, spear gun — plays a pivotal role in kick-starting the central predicament that befalls the unlucky trio at the movie’s heart, but it isn’t necessarily the focus. Hell, it’s not even a multi-use weapon. The worst that befalls these three has nothing to do with a harpoon — sorry, spear gun — and everything to do with their barely-hidden resentment for each other.
The flick begins with handy, and deadening, definitions of several different kinds of friendship, read by Stranger Things‘ Brett Gelman in a disaffected, bitchy tone (his narration, which is left hilariously unexplained, isn’t pure exposition but Arrested Development-style commentary, which is a nice touch). The type Harpoon is concerned with is a friendship of history, or the kind that exists just because it’s been so long and its participants don’t know any different.
Richard (Christopher Gray, who starred in TV series The Mist and The Society) and Jonah (Turbo Kid kid Munro Chambers, all grown up) have been BFFs since they were kids, in spite of very different upbringings; Richard, as befits his name, is super-rich, while Jonah grew up poor. Their trio is completed by Richard’s longtime, and long-suffering, girlfriend Sasha (relative newcomer Emily Tyra, excellent) whose role often involves refereeing arguments between the two men-children.
Harpoon begins with Jonah, grappling with the recent loss of his parents, being set upon by Richard for an alleged indiscretion with Sasha. Seemingly a misunderstanding, it’s the perfect setup for what’s to come, as the group embarks on an ill-fated trip out to sea on Richard’s swanky boat, The Naughty Buoy (great name), and subsequently get stranded. Tensions rise and dark secrets are revealed as they’re stuck with only each other for company.
At first, it seems obvious where Harpoon is going but, although the setup for Rob Grant’s film is devilishly simple, it’s anything but predictable. The tension is built entirely off the interactions between the three protagonists, with no storms, sharks, or even a traditional antagonist in sight. As a result, Grant is forced, just as the central trio are, to improvise in increasingly nasty and horrifying ways. By the time the flick reaches its darkly hilarious conclusion, you’ll be dying for the respite of the ocean.
Harpoon is messily bloody, but the violence isn’t constant. One particularly gruesome death, by propeller, will remain in the memory for as long as the floating leg in Jaws and it’s only about as gory (so, not at all). Grant understands that relentless carnage in such a confined space won’t hit nearly as hard as well-considered bursts of splashy gore. The red stuff flows throughout, but it seeps and congeals as the characters’ lips dry out and their eyes hollow.
There’s a wonderful sense of grossness here that’s difficult to capture in a confined space as nice as a boat cabin. This is a story of abuse and obsession, but it’s also a class struggle between two have-nots and the rich friend who bankrolled their existence while simultaneously treating them like garbage. The revelation of one character as a Snape-like sad sack (only a million times worse; it’s unlikely anyone will be getting an “Always” tattoo for this dude) is stomach-churningly realistic.
The best movies make us wonder what the characters’ lives were like prior to the events onscreen and Harpoon, buoyed (hey!) by a trio of terrific performances, succeeds in making us care about these arguably unsympathetic people and everything that’s led them to this point. Even when things go to hell, there’s still a sense of camaraderie and an easy rapport between the three that makes it easy to believe they’ve been friends forever, with all the requisite baggage it entails.
Sasha is clearly the best character right from the outset, and Tyra’s performance is magnetic, layered with perfectly-judged notes of dark comedy (when asked “How could you!?” by her distraught boyfriend, she replies “Which part?”) and barely-concealed terror. She’s a tough chick but delicate at the same time; completely comfortable when in control but utterly exposed otherwise. The way she interacts with the two lads gives Harpoon much of its most suspenseful moments.
Likewise, Gray plays so much more than a rich asshole, injecting his Richard with sensitivity and intelligence. Neither a pathetic character nor an outright villain, he’s easy to empathize with while still remaining pretty horrible. Chambers, however, is the real revelation here. Looking a bit like Chris Cornell (RIP) now he’s grown up a bit, his Jonah starts out as a down-on-his-luck loser before revealing hitherto unseen depths of darkness and desire.
It’s to his immense credit that the Turbo Kid breakout commits fully to Jonah’s many contradictions. He spends much of Harpoon soaked in blood, eyes wide and pleading, but never loses the innate likeability that makes his friends trust him unequivocally. The tension at the film’s heart wouldn’t exist if Jonah wasn’t something of a question mark, and Chambers ensures it’s never quite clear what he’s really thinking, even when his hand is basically falling off and he seems completely indisposed.
There’s a streak of dark comedy running throughout the movie that, again, is incredibly well-judged. The script, credited to Grant and Mike Kovac, wisely eschews any reliance on the characters sitting around discussing previous glories (does anybody actually do this in real life?). Instead, secrets are organically and disconcertingly revealed, woven into stories about which guy is vanilla in bed and which sweats like a monsoon. The addition of a historically-accurate tale of woe at sea is a genius component that isn’t overdone.
At first, it seems splitting the movie into parts is a nonsensical move until the introduction of the second chapter is revealed as a gag, while the jaunty, indie-heavy score gives the impression of a fun weekend at sea rather than a crisis situation, which is funny in itself but also suits Harpoon‘s sunny, grainy cinematography. Everything screams fun vacation but just beneath the surface things are falling apart spectacularly. It’s a fun juxtaposition that underlines the movie’s cheekily black sense of humor.
Harpoon clocks in at less than 90 minutes, but nothing about it feels rushed. Rather, the film effortlessly and confidently stays afloat for longer than any movie reasonably should with such a bare-bones premise. It’s brilliantly conceived, frequently shocking, and boasts three equally strong performances that make us want to spend more, rather than less, time stranded at sea with these three brats — no mean feat for a movie with a killer hook (literally) that doesn’t rely on queasy violence to make its point.
WICKED RATING: 9/10
Director(s): Rob Grant
Writer(s): Rob Grant, Mike Kovac
Stars: Brett Gelman, Munro Chambers, Emily Tyra, Christopher Gray
Release date: October 4, 2019 (limited), October 8, 2019 (Bluray, VOD)
Studio/Production Company: 775 Media Corp
Run Time: 83 minutes