Harpoon (2019)

Rob Grant’s Harpoon opens with audio of a voice artist (Brett Gelman, Claire’s husband in Fleabag) being asked to do another take. His narration, delivered in an arch tone with some decidedly profane diction, summarises the three types of friendship outlined by Aristotle (of utility, of pleasure, of the good), before positing a fourth type, ‘friendship of history’. Meanwhile a god’s-eye aerial of the blue Atlantic gradually zooms down and in on a boat with the words ‘SOS’ written in improvised letters on its deck. All this is programmatic. For Harpoon is to be precisely about friends and friendship. It is, like Grant’s previous apocalyptic psy-fi Desolate (2013), a three-hander – although Gelman represents a fourth, additional character (like that fourth type of friendship). Most of all, his ironising voiceover situates the film as a constructed fiction, as, in a way, does the very title Harpoon – a piece of false advertising misused to refer to what is in fact a spear gun, as several characters insistently point out. 

Recently orphaned and always impecunious Jonah (Munro Chambers, Turbo Kid), his best friend the rich but anger-prone Richard (Christopher Gray) and Richard’s long-term girlfriend Sasha (Emily Tyra) enjoy a ‘friendship of history’. They go back years, but their relationship is deeply dysfunctional – indeed, near the film’s beginning, Richard greets Jonah with a vicious beating. Richard suspects that Jonah and Sasha have been sleeping together behind his back, Sasha suspects Richard, himself a repeat philanderer, to be guilty of far worse – and there is the sense that these three are just treading water, waiting for something in their fragile dynamic to give. They go off together for what is meant to be a conciliatory day trip on Richard’s boat The Naughty Buoy, but things on board quickly get out of hand, and they find themselves in open waters with no working motor, and very little food or water. Now they become bound together by a fifth type of friendship – that of survival –  but with trust in such short supply, how long can this situation last?

As their crisis unfolds, our three characters while away their long time adrift with stories of multiple shipwrecked young men, all named Richard Parker: one a fictive victim of sea-borne cannibalism in Edgar Allen Poe’s 1838 novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, one a real-life victim of the same in 1883, and both inspiring Yann Martel to give the same name to the flesh-eating shipwrecked tiger in his novel Life Of Pi (2001). In the fabric of these yarns, part fact, part fiction, Jonah, Sasha and Richard (we never learn whether his surname is also Parker) can discern the contours of their own grim fates, even as Gelman turns their unsavoury adventures into a cautionary tale of his own, rooted in arcane seafaring lore and superstition. Harpoon is a tense psychological thriller of betrayal, like Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962), like Phillip Noyce’s Dead Calm (1989), and perhaps even like Jean-Paul Sartre’s three-character play No Exit (1944) – but the narrator, on his last take, ensures that, no matter how violent and vicious, manipulative and mendacious the crew, their vehicle remains darkly funny. 

© Anton Bitel