Films set in one location can be a tricky thing to pull off. After all, how do you keep your audience captivated for 90 minutes if you’re only centering on a one or two characters without changing the dynamic of the space that surrounds them? This isn’t an impossible task to accomplish, though some might have you think so. Do it right and you’ve got a taut little thriller on your hands (see: Adam Green’s Frozen or Rodrigo Cortés Buried). Do it poorly and you’ll be putting the audience to sleep (see: Jonathan Liebesman’s The Killing Room). Director Winston Azzopardi makes it all look easy in The Boat, a claustrophobic thriller that pits one man against the titular vehicle that may or may not have a mind of its own.
When an unnamed sailor (Joe Azzopardi, the director’s son) sets out on his daily run off the coast of Malta, he finds himself lost in a thick fog before coming across the Aeolus, a seemingly abandoned sailboat. After boarding the vessel, his motorboat disappears and the sailor is stuck in a fight for survival against the mysterious vessel that seems hellbent on making sure he doesn’t make it back to shore alive.
For spending about 95% of its 89-minute runtime in one location, The Boat is never boring; and that is saying something for a film that includes a 30-minute sequence where the protagonist is locked in a bathroom. And yes, you read that right: it’s a 30-minute sequence. Known primarily for his work as a producer, Winston Azzopardi makes his feature film debut (outside of a couple of TV movies from the ’90s) with The Boat. He has fun playing with audience expectations with the film, frequently avoiding falling into the traps of genre tropes. There are no jump scares to be found in The Boat, but you’ll find yourself constantly looking for things in the frame that could be amiss. This critic thought for sure the film was going to go for a cheap scare that would see an oft-used window slam on the sailor’s fingers, but Azzopardi resists, relying on the expectation of tragedy to keep viewers on their toes (though to be clear: our sailor has his fair share of setbacks).
The boat itself (named after the Greek god of wind) is menacing enough. The hallways below deck are claustrophobic and the aforementioned bathroom sequence is practically unbearable to watch if you have even the vaguest hint of claustrophobia. The film tries to keep it a mystery as to whether or not the boat actually has a mind of its own or if the sailor is simply going mad, but it becomes clear about halfway through the film which scenario is the correct one. Whether or not it was meant to remain ambiguous I cannot say. One wishes that the Azzopardis had gone just a smidge further with the supernatural elements, but the film’s focus is on the ordeal of the sailor, not the status of the boat.
The Azzopardis’ script is minimal but strong. Whereas some films like The Boat would have their protagonist frequently talking to himself (looking at you 47 Meters Down) so that the audience can understand what he is thinking, The Boat trusts that its viewers are a bit smarter than that. Without the sailor’s narration, the viewing experience is more involved as you attempt to ascertain what his next move will be. Watching his chess match with the Aeolus is sometimes darkly humorous and frequently nerve-wracking, though the film never quite reaches the point of being scary. Tense? Yes. But scary? Not really. The Boat relies on atmosphere to chill the bones and at that it mostly succeeds, especially in the satisfying closing moments, which ends with a final shot that is legitimately creepy.
Lachlan Anderson‘s score is use sparingly but effectively, sounding off primarily in the films tensest moments. The cinematography, by Marek Traskowski, is equally impressive. From the long shots of the boat gliding on the water to the tight, cramped shots of the boat’s interior, Traskowski’s camerawork matches the mood perfectly.
The Boat is a fun little thriller from Winston Azzopardi that manages to keep you enthralled for its duration. It never quite reaches the same level of intensity as other films of its kind, opting instead for a more subtle and mysterious tone throughout (you’ll find no gore in these waters), but it shows enough promise that you’ll walk out of the theater excited about what he and his son deliver next.