“Do you think if you believe anything enough, it’ll become true?” So asks Aaron (George Mackay), the enigmatic, frightening, wounded centre of Paul Wright’s phenomenal debut feature For Those In Peril. Set in a small Scottish fishing village, the film explores the psychological trauma of grief in a viscerally original way. Twentyish Aaron is the sole survivor of a fishing boat accident that left all the other men on board dead – including his handsome older brother, Michael (Jordan Young). Clearly idealised by Aaron, he is desperate to find him, and clings to the hope that he is still alive. He reconnects with Michael’s girlfriend Jane (Nichola Burley), all while his mother Cathy (Kate Dickie) clings to him, all she has left.
Peril uses a folktale Cathy would tell Aaron when he was young as its framing device; a red sea monster comes ashore and devours the children of the village. A brave young boy dives so deep into the sea he himself becomes a fish, swimming down to the devil’s lair and freeing the captured children. Aaron believes he must be this boy to get Michael back, while the village’s residents treat his survival as a grave error.
There are numerous shades of influence present in Wright’s work; the poetic, expressionist visual style and use of delirious voiceover reminiscent of Terrence Malick, while the colour palette and use of silence recalls Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights and Cate Shortland’s Lore. It creates a nearly overwhelming sensory experience, which only feeds the heightened atmosphere Wright so adeptly conjures.
Utilising faux-archival and Super 8 footage as well as home and camera phone video, the film gives a real sense of depth to the family as well as the village at large, and an air of history to the story, resonating in Aaron’s mind just as it must have in the minds of the locals after the accident shook their evidently hyper-masculine community to its very core.
Lead George Mackay is fantastic as the story’s unstable anchor; the film is adept at toying with your perceptions of him, which lends almost an air of mystery to proceedings. Dickie is similarly magnetic as Cathy, who supports and loves her son in spite of the town’s turning him into a pariah. Performances from the rest of the cast round out a fully-realised but never over-exposited locale, crafting an environment coloured by bullying, jealousy, and small-town malevolence.
At 93 minutes, For Those in Peril is slick and lyrical and dense, a fever dream teetering on the edge of psychosis. It churns and heaves alongside the focal ocean, that mysterious permanence that gives the town its livelihood as much as it does a persistent fog of disquiet. Aaron’s all-consuming obsession with scouring the ocean represents as much how little we know of it as it does how little we know of how to process loss, how to mourn.
With the gloriously dread-filled score by Erik Enocksson giving the film’s more abstract moments a pulsating rhythm, For Those in Peril exceeds the promise of its lurking, murky set-up and heralds Wright’s arrival as a formidable new director.
Delivering on its promise and then some, it’s a literally breath-taking cinematic experience until, finally, allowing you to break the water’s surface in its dying, vertiginous minutes.
Laurence Barber - follow Laurence on Twitter at @bortlb.