Baltasar Kormakur's The Deep is one of those rare examples of a fictionalized true story that doesn't ooze with exaggerated melodrama for false effect. Kormakur (101 Reykjavík, the excellent Jar City, and Reykjavík-Rotterdam remake Contraband) crafts a plainspoken tale of survival that walks right past unnecessary hyperbole, instead capturing the true grit of a shipwreck and the heavy heart of a unintentional national hero.
The story takes place off the southern coast of Iceland on Westman Island in 1984, where eleven years before a volcanic eruption nearly devastated the community. The disaster itself does not directly play into the story of the film, but the remaining population on the island is defined by the recent event, including the crewmembers of the fishing vessel about to meet its fate. The leader of this pack is Gulli (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), a gentle giant ready to go to the mat for his friends and family. And on the eve of their departure, he does just that and stands up for the new guy on the crew who gets into a bar fight.
Bar fight heroics aside, Gulli is an unlikely hero--he's overweight and lacks the ambition to even approach a woman he is so obviously fond of--and, as their ship heads out into the turbulent and icy waters of the North Atlantic, the film does nothing more than show the entire crew as average men. Some seem to have more to live for than others, but reading into those clues is assuming that the film follows clichéd tropes and signs.
Kormakur doesn't waste much time, and shortly after heading out to sea, one of the boat's nets snags and quickly capsizes the ship, pulling it under leaving the men miles from the shore. With waters hovering around freezing, the three men that surface don't seem to stand a chance, physiologically or methodically. But as the others go into shock and surrender to the inky waters, Gulli stays afloat and starts to swim toward shore by the guiding lights of other boats and with the companionship of the seagulls.
The seafaring camera work, done with no aid from CGI and exploiting pseudo-ambient darkness, is remarkable. The wreck itself is handled with efficient in-the-moment aplomb, but it is Gulli's eventual approach to the shore with sheer cliffs, rocks and bone-crushing waves that delivers some of the most rousing moments in the film. You can feel the threat of the roiling waves to the point where you wonder about the actor's safety.
Gulli navigates the treacherous coast and makes it across very rugged terrain in bare feet and freezing temperatures to town. The epilogue of Gulli's amazing survival is half the story and likewise occupies half the film. The doctors test, poke and prod him, amazed that any man could endure the circumstances, while he shies away from the media attention, silently harboring his own survivor's guilt.
The climax comes early in The Deep and then offers a slow and somewhat ordinary resolution, which will disappoint some looking for more action than adventure. But Kormakur's control over the subject matter is to be commended, unapologetically taking Gulli's story to heart and avoiding more theatrical acrobatics. Gulli does what he is asked and goes to London for physical examination, but what he really wants is a return to what he knows and a return to normalcy. As the credits roll, archive news footage runs of the real life Gulli showing not only a scene reenacted in the film but also a proof positive explanation for the disposition of the film: modest and simple.