Every year, Toronto begins to take on certain themes by the festival's midpoint, and this year there were some strong, serious dramas involving characters who go it alone in life, and much of the time to their own detriment.
Six Newfies are stranded somewhere in the Northern Atlantic. Sounds like a setup for a joke, but it's the pitch and the plot of "The Disappeared", the fifth entanglement-at-sea movie I've seen in the last twelve months, and easily the most no frills contribution of them all, though no less effective.
It is the morning after our fishermen have lost their boat, which sank hard and fast the previous evening. All they have left are two rowboats, a bottle of rum, some food rations, assorted personal effects, and of course the bravery and resourcefulness of fishermen.
Not content to float around waiting to be rescued, skipper Gerald (Brian Downey) commandeers his crew to row their boats across the ocean until they reach land, which he reckons is nearly a week away. I love Gerald's weathered face, which reminds me of a cross between Relic of "The Beachcombers" and grizzled former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.
Gerald's first mate is the strapping Mannie (Billy Campbell) whose sharp features and rugged personality seem to belong to a bygone era. When he speaks of the good lovin' between himself and his woman on shore, you get the feeling that he's probably not the kind of guy who needs to warm up for awhile on the couch, watching t.v. and snacking as a kind of foreplay to get in the mood, such as modern couples are inclined to do.
Our four other sailors are Gib (Ryan Doucette), Pete (Shawn Doyle), Merv (Gary Levert) and his son Dickie (Neil Matheson) who's on his first--and quite possibly his last--adventure to sea.
The men row their boats on shifts while the other half rest. They swig shots of rum just big enough to wet their tongues. Pete makes his smokes last, taking in long, full hauls. Gib's in charge of the rations. Merv puts his full faith in God, to Pete's consternation. Dickie's an appropriately disheveled teen, open-faced and along for the ride. Sometimes the men talk, sometimes they're quiet, other times they sing old fishermen standards like "Homeward Bound" and "North Atlantic Squadron", always dutifully rowing closer to somewhere that seems further away.
"The Disappeared" is a movie that isn't trying so hard, and I say that as a compliment. There are no twists or turns. No artifice. No false moments. It doesn't strain itself trying to make some grand statement. It takes the first sentence of this review and proves in its own quiet way that a good movie doesn't need a point or a lesson to be compelling. Or villains. Or any of the usual things we think a movie is required to have to make us feel like we're experiencing a good one. The simple act of Captain Gerald's awareness to reach quickly for his pistol and shoot a seagull dead so he and his men can eat dinner is more exhilarating than a million shots fired in most generic movies. He's aiming at that bird with his life hanging in the balance. Pete's a man who we watch evolve from a hothead into a leader. And there is real poignancy when the men decide to write what might turn out to be thoughts left for the living to find.
These men are lost at the beginning and they're lost by the end, which of course might only be an ellipsis. Or so we hope. As several days and nights pass, and when tragedy strikes one of the crew, we see the way macho façades peel away and how at times the men's hopes begin to waver and turn to melancholy and despair, and even rage against the dying of the light. Their story reminds us that these kinds of laborers often have a gritty determination that appears built-in to their souls as men of the sea. They wouldn't sit up and rage if life were not important to them.
Shandi Mitchell's feature writing and directing debut distinguishes itself by not appearing to feel written or directed. It seems to have simply arrived at sea as a document of a dying way of life. There are any number of traps for first-time directors, like trying to cram in too much plot, or trying to say too much, or trying way too hard to insert themselves stylistically onto their stories. There's none of that here. Just a series of honest moments with characters I came to care about by the end for their tenacity and endurance and then finally, their frailty.