127 Hours meets 47 Meters Down in Joachim Hedén’s succinct, nail-biting survival story Breaking Surface. Substitute Utah’s sun-scorched rocks with a freezing ocean, take away the sharks, throw in a dash of artsy European flare, and there you have it. Hedén makes up for the lack of originality with a singular focus and relentless tension. His film grips from the first minute and doesn’t let go until the final, 73rd one.
After a breathless prologue, wherein a diver barely escapes from the suction of a ship’s propeller, the film follows two Swedish/Norwegian half-sisters, Ida (Moa Gammel Ginsburg) and Tuva (Madeleine Martin), who venture out to a remote coastline for a frosty winter diving session. With a few brush strokes, Hedén sketches out their circumstances: Ida’s going through marital woes, she and Tuva have some unresolved issues, and their mother’s seething resentment has clearly had an impact on them both.
Everything goes well at first, the sisters even encountering killer whales in the translucent oceanic depths – until a rockslide traps Tuva underwater, destroying all their means of communication with the outside world in the process: car keys, phones, and equipment. Now Ida must figure out a way to rescue her sibling, and fast.
“…a rockslide traps Tuva underwater, destroying all their means of communication with the outside world in the process…”
Like any well-made contained thriller, Breaking Surface does a lot with very little. The locked trunk of a car (this film serves as a testament to the impenetrable vehicle that is a Volvo) becomes the source of Ida’s biggest dilemma. An airplane passing by overhead may or may not have spotted Ida. Her diving and resurfacing, over and over, leads to “the bends,” with Ida throwing up and bleeding out of her nose. Hedén even throws in a violent encounter with a dog because, well, why the hell not?
Breaking Surface boasts a verisimilitude lacking in its glossier Hollywood counterparts. Hedén doesn’t resort to gimmicks like sharks (ahem, except for that dog), rightfully trusting that Nature’s elements present a formidable enough foe to his two strong female leads. They fight the cold, the lack of oxygen, the decompression sickness, and every claustrophobic moment vividly captured by cinematographers Eric Börjeson and Anna Patarakina.
Moa Gammel Ginsburg excels as the seemingly sensible sibling who panics under pressure but ultimately gets her sh*t together. Madeleine Martin convinces as the rebellious but hands-on and level-headed Tuva. “Damn it,” she says, disappointed when a tow truck arrives and prevents her from fixing someone’s tire. The sibling bond between them is believable and given just enough time to develop subtly without overwhelming the story, yet providing it with real gravitas.
Will Breaking Surface redefine survival thrillers? Most likely not. But it’s a lean, mean little tension machine. You’ll be chilled to the bone.
"…boasts a verisimilitude lacking in its glossier Hollywood counterparts."