The Disappeared, a stripped-down Canadian story of six men adrift somewhere in the North Atlantic, has been compared to Robert Redford’s 2013 film All Is Lost. Redford is a bit of Johnny-come-lately to the bleak movie genre, however, while we Canadians have been doing it for some time.
A certain down-deep familiarity with the cinema of despair serves writer-director Shandi Mitchell well. Raised on the prairies but now living on the East Coast, she pulls off some powerful moments of minimalist misery.
The film centres on six fishermen who have lost their boat and are now stranded mid-ocean in two small dories. That’s the short version, and the long version doesn’t add much: The men are faced with a dwindling supply of food and water and seven days’ hard rowing to land—if they’re very lucky.
Mitchell finds some incredible visual poetry in the contrast between the claustrophobically small boats and the grey vastness of the ocean. The camera often bobs near the waterline—I actually got a little seasick—and there’s an overwhelming sense of disorientation, both physical and existential.
The most obvious threat is the indifferent power of nature, but the deeper dangers are in the men themselves, and in how they react to life-and-death pressure.
In Mitchell’s restrained screenplay, we get information from very small cues. The film starts with morning roll call, and already in each man’s response we get a sense of their strengths and weaknesses, and how the group dynamics might play out.
There’s Gerald, the stoic captain (great work from veteran Newfoundland character actor Brian Downey). There’s Mannie (Billy Campbell), the by-the-book first mate. There’s Merv (Gary Levert), deeply religious but seemingly furious. The loudest and the funniest of the fellas is Pete, played by Shawn Doyle (of Republic of Doyle and Big Love). If you have to be stranded in the middle of the North Atlantic, Doyle is pretty good company.
Through the men’s talk, Mitchell quietly pursues ideas about masculinity, about work, about fate and free will. There’s also a small sidebar on the strange lore of sailors’ superstitions.
Unsparing and often grim, The Disappeared isn’t trying to court a large audience. Some viewers will find the film unbearably suspenseful; others will just find it unbearable.
Either way, anyone who sees this unsettling film probably won’t want to go out to sea in a fishing boat any time soon.
The Disappeared plays at Cinematheque, Feb. 7, 8, 9 and 12. Hear Alison Gillmor's review on Up to Speed with host Ismaila Alfa at 4:30 p.m. on Friday Feb. 7.