I have this old friend I used to watch horror movies with back in the day...
...To say he’s the “outdoorsy type” would be an understatement: this guy’s basically been Bear Grylls since the age of ten. When we were teenagers, we would rent every fright flick we could get our hands on from our local Blockbuster Video (Rest in Power, old friend) and while I was usually doing my best not to cover my eyes during the particularly frightening parts, he would sit there cool as a cucumber, happy but not the least bit unnerved by it. He loved these movies but ghosts, psycho killers, and possessed preteens didn’t spook him in the least.
So, one day I finally asked him what did. He paused for a moment, looked at me, and talked quietly about how his worst fear was that someday some sort of emergency could happen while he was out in the bush and he would lose his composure. A loss of control in a situation like that could spell disaster very quickly, and even though he had an extensive track record of grace under pressure, he knew that everyone had the potential to lose themselves to panic.
Breaking Surface, the latest film from Swedish writer/director Joachim Hedén, is a beautifully crafted and harrowing example of what panic and its ability to escalate a situation looks like. It’s not a traditional horror film in the sense that it doesn’t fall under any of the usual sub-categories we see in the genre but make no mistake: it is horrifying. I cannot remember the last time a movie had me this tense, and I strongly suspect that I’ve finally found the film that would make my steely-eyed pal squirm.
The film centers around two sisters, Ida (Moa Gammel) and Tuva (Madeleine Martin), whose annual winter diving trip turns into chaos when the latter gets pinned at the bottom of the ocean leaving the former to desperately figure out a way to get her to the surface before their supplies of oxygen run out. With their remote location ensuring that no help will be able to come in time, Ida must rely solely on herself in order to save her sister. As the weather worsens, panic quickly begins to seep in and cloud her judgement forcing the woman to confront past traumas in order to regain control of herself and find the strength she will need to snatch Tuva away from certain death.
Some films cast a spell over their audiences that render them completely oblivious to the passing of time. It’s a rare trait but Breaking Surface manages that feat thanks to its masterful ability to ratchet up tension incrementally until it holds you in such a tight grasp that you may have to remind yourself to take a breath (I know I sure did). This is achieved both through the worsening circumstances the sisters encounter and by Gammel’s performance as Ida, a character whose response to the crisis she’s faced with is deeply relatable.
As outside elements (the landslide that pins her sister to the ocean floor and deteriorating winter weather) begin to pile on, Ida loses herself to panic. She tries desperately to save Tuva, but each attempt she makes only seems to compound the danger they’re in. Haunted by guilt stemming from an accident that almost took Tuva’s life back when they were children, Ida is blinded by her need to redeem herself. You feel her desperation in your bones and it immediately glues you to the screen. Watching as she struggles with her demons in real time while trying to figure out a way to lift the boulder that’s trapping her sister, you can’t help but ask yourself what you would do in her shoes or wonder if you have it in you to make some of the gut-wrenching decisions she needs to make as the film progresses.
Another aspect of Breaking Surface that keeps your eyes glued to the screen is practically every scene that takes place under water. Horror fans often hear actors talk about the challenges they face in terms of executing their trade with makeup prosthetics over their faces or while being entombed in full-body suits. Those problems are definitely unenviable but imagine being in a film that requires you to perform many of its most emotionally charged moments underwater while attached to a scuba apparatus. The fact that you feel so engaged with Ida and Tuva throughout Breaking Surface is a testimony to the strength of the performances given by Gammel and Martin.
Though it suffers from a climax that draws itself out a little too long, dampening its emotional payoff ever so slightly in the process, overall Breaking Surface is a satisfying tale of survival against insurmountable odds featuring beautiful performances and enough claustrophobic atmosphere to make you gasp for air in the best way possible.
Breaking Surface is now available on VOD from Doppelganger Releasing.
By Patrick Brennan