★★★★ / ★★★★
Movies of today tend to forget the importance of an opening sequence. Lesser works offer erratic, uninformative, at times confusing, nonsensical, or boring introductions that have little to do, if any, with what the picture is about. They dampen viewers’ expectations rather than rouse or compel us to keep watching, unblinking. Baltasar Kormákur’s “Adrift” does not make this mistake. He dares to place us after the climax as a young woman wakes up in yacht that had survived a Category 4 hurricane in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We watch her bloodied face and panic-stricken body struggle to find a way out among the debris. We know, and she knows, that the real horror is only about to begin. Kormákur trusts that we can follow the story from there.
Because of the well-written screenplay by Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell, and David Branson Smith, the material works as a survival drama and a romance picture. It presents two timelines: the current desperate situation that Tami (Shailene Woodley) finds herself in and when she meets a British sailor, Richard, (Sam Claflin) about ten years her senior, in Tahiti prior to their four-thousand-mile voyage. Both are equally compelling in completely contrasting ways yet one hinges on the other. For instance, if the relationship were not believable, how could we invest in the couple’s survival? And if the couple’s survival weren’t riveting, what would be the point in learning about their backstory? It is fascinating nearly every step of the way due to its fresh choices.
It takes its time to establish the necessary elements so that we find ourselves relating to whatever is unfolding on screen. Let us take a look at the opening sequence, for example. Notice how the camera slowly underscores the interior of the yacht by carefully pulling back as the lead character attempts to find an exit. The more claustrophobic she feels, the more we see of the interior. A lazier approach would have been to show the subject simply waking up, struggling a little to get up from her initial position, and the first door she touches opens without any trouble.
Instead, by choosing to take the time to show that every decision is not only a struggle but one that may result in vain, it gives the viewer an impression that the journey we are about to go on will command unflinching realism, that there will be unpredictability to it. The opening minutes grips the audience by the throat and it is near impossible to look away.
Woodley and Claflin share wonderful chemistry because they appear to communicate with every fiber of their being. Woodley is particularly impressive. Observe carefully as Tami talks about her family history, where she comes from, what she is running away from, and what she hopes to accomplish from living a nomadic lifestyle. Yes, we hear her words and, yes, we recognize that Woodley’s face and body language are expressive.
But focus on the eyes for minute and do not look anywhere else. She is also saying plenty based on what those eyes choose to focus on, how they look away just a little, when they blink, how tears accumulate just a bit when a deeply intimate detail is brushed upon. I believe that Woodley is one of the best modern performers we have currently because she relies on her instinct. There is not one decision that comes across as mechanical or fake. I love that she is willing to appear on camera even when a certain look on her is unflattering. I admired it further that the director is unconcerned when it comes to showing the couple under flattering light or angle. What they share just need to feel real.
“Adrift,” based on the book by survivor Tami Ashcraft, brings to mind J.C. Chandor’s exceptional “All is Lost” since both are willing to present details that mainstream works may not bother to show or explore. Although this film is less reliant on silence to build suspense, both pictures capture the desperation of being alone at sea for thousands of miles with little hope of rescue and the poetry of having to face one’s mortality.