Pressure (2015)

First published by Sight & Sound, September 2015

Synopsis: The Somali Basin. Mitchell, Engel, Hurst and Jones are lowered 670 feet in a diving bell to fix a damaged oil pipeline. A storm above sinks their support ship. The four manage to make brief contact with a stricken Chinese fishing vessel. After nearly killing Mitchell in a diving accident, Hurst heads out to look for the ship’s oxygen canisters, and succumbs to hypothermia. Tipped off by the Chinese vessel, a navy frigate commander makes contact, but needs time to find their location. He also confirms Engel’s suspicions that their company Vaxxilon has washed its hands of them. Engel has to be resuscitated after searching (successfully) for more oxygen along the pipeline. They try floating the bell, even at the risk of crushing their own transport with the differential pressure – but its umbilicus snags on the bottom, suspending them 170 feet beneath the surface. Mitchell swims out to float the signal beacon but, stung by jellyfish, releases it too early, and drowns in a self-sacrificing effort to switch it on. Haunted by failing to save a father and son from a previous accident, Engel insists father-to-be Jones take the remaining diving hat and try swimming to the surface after the bell has been partially decompressed and flooded. Jones heads painfully to the surface under Engel’s intercom guidance, and is picked up by a navy rescue boat and treated for decompression sickness. Clutching the necklace of his late fiancée, Engel swims out and drowns.

Review: “We are a four-man saturation diving team in a bell,” says faith-ruled family man Mitchell (Matthew Goode) into the radio, hoping that someone will heed his call for help. On the floor of the Somali Basin to weld a damaged oil pipe, Mitchell and his crew – gruff, professional Engel (Danny Huston), arthritic, alcholic Hurst (Alan McKenna) and young, inexperienced Jones (Joe Cole, who also starred in director Ron Scalpello’s 2012 feature debut Offender) – realise that a perfect storm above has sunk their support ship, leaving them 670 feet under and utterly alone.

The deep sea diving disaster movie is something of a ‘sub’-genre, with James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989) and Barry Levinson’s Sphere (1998) bringing extraterrestrials and fantasy to the underwater setting, while Tristan De Vere Cole’s Dykket (1989) and Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s Pioneer (2013) are anchored, like Pressure, to the more realist milieu of oil exploration and transport. What Scalpello adds to this tradition is the claustrophobic thrill associated with films that have seen individuals (and us with them) trapped for most of the duration in lifts (Abwärts, 1984; Blackout, 2008; Devil, 2010; Elevator, 2011), saunas (247℉, 2011), funiculars (Frozen, 2010) or even coffins (Buried, 2010). Once the diving bell has descended in the film’s opening minutes, Pressure stays underwater till the bitter end, in and around a fragile vessel. The spaces inside – essentially two small rooms – are creaky and confining, while external shots of the vessel, its lights flickering in the darkness, merely enhance the sense of vulnerability and desolation. Our only departure from these environments is the occasional, impressionistic cutaway to a woman in a car’s passenger seat (Emily Lowe) and a young boy – but the story behind this memory that haunts Engel turns out also to involve a sink-or-swim scenario in deep waters. Even Jones’ dream offers no escape, as his wife (Gemita Samarra), figured as a naked mermaid, entwines him in her suffocating embrace just outside the bell, in a siren’s call of love and death.

Phrases like ‘in deep water’ and ‘lost at sea’ carry an obvious metaphorical connotation along with their more literal meaning – and when Jones declares, “You’re gonna die anyway, what’s the difference here or in the water?”, his question speaks to broader existential concerns. Within the womb-like bell, with its lifelines to ship and to crew expressly called (and resembling) an ‘umbilicus’, these men (some fathers, or father-to-be) discuss childbirth – and hope themselves to be reborn – even as birth’s opposite bears down upon them. In between these two states, they express their hopes, fears and disappointments in life, and, through their actions, define themselves. It is potentially a simple, sparse set-up, pregnant with thematic resonance – although the decision to introduce Pressure first with information (in text form) on deep-sea oil pipelines and decompression, and next with Engel’s grimly poetic voice-over on the lure of the sea, betrays an overstated style of filmmaking that threatens to delimit the infinite and drown any subtlety.

Anton Bitel