Harpoon (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Video
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (10th March 2020).
The Film

Harpoon (Rob Grant, 2019)

Synopsis: Lifelong friends Jonah (Munro Chambers) and Richie (Christopher Gray) exist at opposite ends of the social spectrum. Jonah, whose parents are both dead, comes from a modest background, whilst Richie has led a life of privilege and opportunity which manifests itself in bouts of rage.

Richie’s girlfriend Sasha (Emily Tyra) and Jonah have been in communication over their shared birthday present for Richie – a harpoon gun with a mahogany stock, for Richie to keep aboard his pleasure boat. However, when Richie discovers Sasha has been sending and receiving messages from Jonah, he jumps to a very different conclusion; believing Sasha and Jonah to have been sleeping together, Richie assaults his oldest friend viciously.

After the truth has been revealed, the trio retreat to Richie’s boat, Richie vowing to make amends by taking them on a pleasure voyage. Jonah seizes this opportunity to also scatter the ashes of his parents at sea.

However, on the boat the relationships between Richie, Jonah and Sasha are equally fractured, and after Jonah suggests that Richie may have been unfaithful to Sasha, Richie responds angrily, holding the new harpoon gun at his friend. Sasha defends Jonah, knocking Richie out. Jonah and Sasha, who it is revealed have slept together, plot to kill Richie, making his death look like an accident by making his body fall into the water. (Jonah insists that Richie must fall in the water as a result of the rocking of the boat, so that he and Sasha may, in asserting they did not push Richie from the boat, pass any potential lie detector test administered by the police.) The tables are turned, however, when Richie regains consciousness and reveals that he has the keys to the boat, without which the other two will be stranded.

The trio agree to make peace and return to the shore, but are appalled when they discover that the boat’s engine will not start. Adrift and with no way of returning to the short, the trio are stranded and, within days, quickly run out of food and water.

Critique:
It could be marketed as a sort of twisted version of Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (1889), but in all seriousness Rob Grant’s Harpoon (2019) has much in common with Roman Polanski’s 1962 debut feature, Knife in the Water – or Charles Williams’ novel Dead Calm, first published in 1963 and filmed by Philip Noyce in 1989. Like the Polanski film, Harpoon features a boat and, aboard it, two men and a woman; these characters come to loggerheads over the two male characters’ perceived ‘ownership’ of the woman. It’s a story of sexual jealousy and insecure masculinity, the isolated boat setting working as an emotional pressure cooker and giving the narrative a strong sense of claustrophobia.

In juxtaposing the impoverished Jonah with the wealthy and privileged Richie, Harpoon feels almost dialectical in its approach, with the character of Sasha oscillating between the two. A pivot within the narrative, and the film’s most sympathetic character, Sasha is clearly drawn to Richie (though for what specific reason, it is difficult to determine) and asserts that she slept with Jonah out of pity. Richie’s life of privilege, meanwhile, enacts itself in his bouts of absolute rage; for much of the film, Richie is like a spoilt child who throws a tantrum when he cannot get his own way. Early in the film, Richie assaults Jonah, leaving Jonah’s face a bloody mess, after accusing his friend of having an affair with Sasha. Jonah and Sasha then reveal that their ‘secret’ messages have been about the harpoon gun that they have bought Richie as a birthday present. (However, later in the film it is revealed that Jonah and Sasha have slept together behind Richie’s back.) Introduced early in the film, the harpoon gun itself is a clear and obvious example of Chekhov’s gun, and the first-time viewer will wonder when (not if) the hot-headed Richie will use it in anger. This happens sooner rather than later, when Richie holds the harpoon gun at Jonah, following Jonah’s suggestion that Richie has betrayed Sasha. The revelation by Sasha, mid-way through the narrative, that a pregnant ex-girlfriend of Richie’s arrived at their doorstep, and was subsequently found stabbed to death, escalates the tensions aboard the boat.

Things come to a head when, after a number of days adrift, the trio begin to run out of food and water. Sasha tells the others the story of Richard Parker, the cabin boy who was cannibalised by his crewmates aboard a lifeboat after the yacht Mignonette sank in 1884; Sasha reminds the others of this true story’s eerie connection to Edgar Allan Poe’s novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, published in 1838, in which a sailor also called Richard Parker is eaten by his shipmates after their ship, the Grampus, becomes stranded. The trio become convinced that they must drink the blood of a seagull they have captured, and from here they turn their attentions to one another, eventually drawing lots to determine which one of them will be sacrificed in order for them to be eaten by the remaining pair.

The film is narrated in the third person; the narrator is unseen but intrusive, stopping the narrative at various points in order to comment on the action and the numerous turning points in the protagonists’ relationships. The narrator opens the film by discussing the nature of friendship. ‘Aristotle said there are three types of friendship’, the narrator intones, ‘The first is friendship of utility, which happens between you and someone who is useful to you in some way, like a co-worker. The second is friendship of pleasure, which is when two or more people just enjoy one another’s company [….] And the third called “friendship of the good”, is build upon mutual respect and admiration’. This opening monologue sets the tone for the film: what type of friendship exists between the film’s three protagonists, what are its limits and how will they be tested? To these categories of friendship, later in the picture the narrator adds yet another: ‘friendship of survival, in which you work together or you’re fucked’. When, after Richie has assaulted Jonah in the film’s opening sequence, Richie begs for forgiveness, the narrator is guilty of stating the obvious – expressing directly what the audience can infer from the actions of the trio: ‘So with that […] our trio returned to their usual and instinctive roles. Richard begging for forgiveness for his latest and all-too-frequent fits of rage; Jonah retreating inside himself, reinforcing his belief that the world is out to get him; and Sasha continuing to play her role as girlfriend, mother and… referee’.

Reappearing at various points throughout the picture, the narration is often metadiegetic, in a too-cool-for-school manner which is compounded by the fragmentation of the story into chapters (denoted by onscreen titles, eg: ‘PART ONE: EVEN STEVENS’; ‘PART TWO: FIVE DAYS AND NO SHIPPING BOATS LATER’) and the intrusive use of arty black-and-white flashbacks presented in 1.33:1 as if they are footage from home movies; the result is something that feels very Scorsese-inspired (or Scorsese-inspired via Tarantino) but is ultimately gimmicky, adding little to the film. (Bizarrely, in another example of foregrounded artifice, though the dialogue is littered with profanities, in the narration the word ‘fuck’ is bleeped out several times.)


Video

Filling approximately 25Gb of space on a dual-layered Blu-ray disc, Harpoon is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. The film has a running time of 82:33 mins, and is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1.

The film’s photography seems to take a few cues from Bill Butler’s work aboard the Orca in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), moving in and around the characters on the boat in a manner that seems clearly to delineate their fractious relationships. Clearly shot digitally, Harpoon looks very handsome on this presentation. The image is crisp and detailed, with vibrant colours – particularly the deep blue of the sea. Contrast levels are pleasing, with defined midtones for the most part, and despite the glaring sun (emphasised by a vibrance in the yellows/oranges that seems to have been amplified in post-production), highlights seem fairly even throughout and the curve into the toe is fairly subtle. There’s some funky looking day-for-night footage part-way through the film, but this is a characteristic of the original photography/post-production rather than a ‘fault’ of this Blu-ray presentation. The encode to disc is solid and presents no apparent issues.

Some full-sized screengrabs are included at the bottom of this review. Please click to enlarge them.

Audio

There are two audio options on the disc: a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track and a LPCM 2.0 stereo track. Both are fine, with dialogue being audible through and strong range and depth. Optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing are provided.

Extras

The disc includes:
- An audio commentary by the director and producer. Director Rob Grant and producer Mike Peterson discuss the origins of Harpoon and discuss some of the issues they faced in making the picture. They begin by talking extensively about the narration – both in terms of writing the narration and finding the right ‘voice’ to deliver it. They discuss the casting of the picture, and they talk some of the logistical issues they faced in shooting the picture – including the difficulties in getting permission to shoot drone footage off the coast of Belize. Grant suggests that he approached the writing of the script as if he were writing a play, and he also discusses the influence of his love of Martin Scorsese’s films upon the finished picture.

- ‘Director’s psychedelic audio commentary’. This commentary features Grant, commenting alone, who begins by stating that he has ‘just taken some psychedelic mushrooms’. Despite this, Grant talks lucidly about some of the issues involved in getting an independent feature film produced and distributed.

- ‘Dropping Anchor: The Making of Harpoon’ (29:59). Looking at the production of Harpoon, this short documentary incorporates behind-the-scenes footage with interviews with the cast and key crew. Director Rob Grant and producer Mike Peterson talk about the origins of the production, which entered production under the title A Boat Movie, and Grant outlines the key premise of the film. Munro Chambers discusses his role in the film, in an interview delivered in the makeup chair, and Emily Tyra and Christopher Gray also discuss their characters. Unfortunately, the early portions of the documentary are underscored by some moderately annoying beat-driven music which sometimes makes it difficult to discern what the interviewees are saying.

- Deleted Scenes with Commentary (4:42). The commentary (by Rob Grant) on these deleted scenes is not optional. Grant introduces the deleted scenes and comments over the more quiet moments, which include an extended opening scene; an extension of the scene in which the trio discover that the boat won’t start; and an extended version of the scene which follows the drinking of the seagull’s blood.

- ‘Diving Deeper’ (5:06). Here, we are presented with some B-roll footage over which Rob Grant provides commentary.

- ‘Welcome Aboard’ (20:26)
. Recorded at Frightfest in August of 2019, Rob Grant is interviewed about the origins of Harpoon, which he says he pitched as ‘Polanski’s Knife in the Water by way of Seinfeld characters’. Grant talks about some of the research he conducted whilst writing the film, and he also talks about his approach to directing a film – suggesting that he prefers to let a scene ‘play out’ rather than breaking up a scene by shooting in short bursts.

- ‘Harpoon at Frightfest’ (14:15)
. This is an on-stage introduction to the film by Rob Grant and Mike Peterson and Q&A, recorded at Frightfest in August of 2019.

- Frightfest TV: An Interview with Rob Grant (9:11)
. This is yet another interview with Grant, which covers some of the same territory as the other, longer interview with Grant that is also included on this disc. However, here Grant reflects on the experience of watching his film with the Frightfest audience.

- Frightfest TV: Frightfest Media Wall (4:52)
. Grant is interviewed in front of the media wall at Frightfest.

- Trailer (1:06)
.

Overall

In the interviews on this disc, Grant comments several times that the pitch for Harpoon was ‘Polanski’s Knife in the Water by way of Seinfeld characters’. The parallels with Knife in the Water seem obvious enough: both films are stories about sexual rivalry/jealousy and two male characters’ attempts to ‘possess’ a woman. The Seinfeld comparison is less obvious – other than the fact, perhaps, that the three characters are all in varying ways unsympathetic. Certainly, however, the approach to the material (including the arch, self-referential narration and ‘chapter’ breaks) is often too kool for skool. The narration, in particular, is a distraction, often guilty of stating the obvious, and the picture would arguably work better without it. On the audio commentary, director Rob Grant suggests that he is fascinated with Martin Scorsese’s films, and this shows in the finished picture, which often has moments that feel very Scorsese-esque. The ‘stagey’ nature of the script (which Grant acknowledges, suggesting that he wrote the script as if he were writing a stage play, and argues that the material could easily be adapted for the stage) is enlivened by the gusto of the photography and performances, amplified through some grisly makeup effects.

Ultimately, Harpoon is an admirable indie picture, though one which feels quite derivative in places. Arrow’s Blu-ray release of the film contains an excellent presentation of the main feature and some excellent, though occasionally repetitive, contextual material.


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