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Non-Review Review: Pressure

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2015.

Trapping a bunch of people in a claustrophobic location under time pressure is really the key to instant drama.

It is a well-proven strategy that has been used so often because it works. It is a great vehicle for high-stakes tension, but also for tough interpersonal drama. If you pack people close enough together under just the right amount of strain, it is a great way to reveal and inform character. It leads to conflict, which is generally quite entertaining to watch. If you can harness that tension and that conflict, it is fairly easy to get the audience to go along with the rest of the film.

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Pressure is a quintessential “bunch of people trapped in a tight space waiting to die” film. Four divers venture down to repair an oil pipeline, only for disaster to strike. The four characters find themselves trapped alone at the bottom of the ocean, with no real chance of survival. Tough decisions have to be made, and characters are thrown into conflict with one another as the air runs low and the power runs out. There are moments when Pressure really works as a claustrophobic thriller.

Unfortunately, there are just as many moments when Pressure doesn’t work. The film seems intent on pulling the audience out of the harrowing situation – whether through quick flashbacks or nightmare sequences that undercut the claustrophobic tension of the rest of the film. Despite the best efforts of the cast, the characters feel stilted and stock – spouting cliché dialogue and coming in the form of broad archetypes. The scripting is similarly haphazard, particularly in the somewhat contrived third act.

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The obvious point of comparison for Pressure is Gravity. After all, that is another film where oxygen is a finite resource. Of course, the concept is far older than that, but Gravity found a great deal of success in executing a familiar formula with an endearing energy and directness. Gravity commits wholeheartedly to its premise. The final sequence works so very well because the film earns it. The movie has committed so completely to the idea of isolation and strain that embracing any sort of freedom or openness feels almost fantastical and alien.

This is the biggest problem with Pressure. The film has a great hook and a solid premise. As the four characters try to figure out what to do next, there is a palpable anxiety. However, the movie cannot commit itself to the high stakes it sets up. Unwilling to trust the audience to understand – or the actors to convey – what needs to be said, Pressure keeps pulling back out of the submersible vehicle. Characters hear voices from their surface lives; others experience flashbacks; some even have nightmares. However, the cumulative effect is to take the audience out of the moment.

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There are other problems at work as well. The four characters trapped in the submersible device are all broadly-drawn archetypes. There is the by-the-book senior official, who also happens to be religious; there is the alcoholic veteran; there is the young man just starting a family; there is the jaded cynic who is running away from some dark secret on land. There is nothing wrong with any of these archetypes, and there are points in Pressure when they work well, but there are points where the script is incredibly clumsy in how it handles them.

Danny Huston turns in a great performance as Engel, the pessimism of the bunch. He works very well as the more downbeat and defeatist of the group, particularly in contrast to Matthew Goode’s restrained senior officer. However, there are limits to what Huston can do with the material. Things start to really unravel in the third act, and part of that is in giving Huston a big monologue about his dark secret. It doesn’t feel like an organic development from the situation – oxygen is too precious to waste on monologues! – but the film feels the need to get that exposition across.

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The third act is riddled with contrivances, particularly as it tries to thin the cast a bit. In particular, there is one sequence that relies on two consecutive contrivances in order to reach a dramatic beat. It feels like the movie desperately wants these big dramatic moments, but has no idea how to integrate them into the narrative. The result is a film that often feels disjointed and uneven, a script that feels subject to big dramatic conventions rather than emotional honesty.

It is a shame, because Pressure works very well at points. The dive sequences are suitably impressive, and the submersible set is incredibly claustrophobic. The four-man cast bounce well off one another in that tight space. Pressure works a lot better when it adopts a minimalist approach, when it accepts that a story like this flows better by embracing the smallness of the cast in the face of something much larger and more unknowable than they are. The submersible is, after all, lost in an impossibly large ocean.

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Pressure is a film with a lot of potential, but which never quite manages to fulfil any of it.

All audience members are asked to rank films in the festival from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, here is my score: 2

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