Movie Review: Deepwater Horizon – Inferno and Anxiety

8 BP protester out of 10

Recent disaster prone films such as “2012” or “San Andreas” have left a bad taste in my mouth. They forgo any real effort in making a good movie, and instead justify themselves with a few scenes of incredibly expensive CGI mayhem. So, despite hearing good things about it, I went into “Deepwater Horizon” with low expectations. What I got however, was an extremely effective thriller that really should be an example of how to make these kinds of movies.

Depicting the explosive failure of the titular oil rig that led to the worst oil spill in U.S. history and the death of eleven men, “Deepwater Horizon” follows Mike Williams’ (Mark Wahlberg) struggle to survive the catastrophe. Mark Wahlberg is great here, the sincerity he always acts with works when he’s trying to talk people through the trauma of the oil rig exploding around them. It strikes me that his experience portraying a soldier in 2013’s “Lone Survivor” translates really well into the role of Mike Williams, who was himself an ex-Marine. That fact was integral to the character and his ability to continue functioning and helping others with the rig going up around him.

John Malkovich does his standard incredibly dislikable person, but aside from Wahlberg, the standout for me was Kurt Russell. He portrays the gruff manager of the “Deepwater Horizon” and is just incredibly likable. He’s a joy to watch in scenes prior to the explosion and that got me invested in him enough that I was worried about him in every scene after.

One of the biggest things that “Deepwater Horizon” does right is take the time to build its setting and invest us in its characters. More than 40 minutes of the film go buy before the oil rig first goes up in flames, and all that time is spent on world building and character development. And, more importantly, it’s good-world building and great character development. We meet Williams’ wife and daughter and know what he’s struggling to stay alive for. We understand the mechanics of the drill failure, and it’s done without us ever feeling like it’s being explained for our benefit.

We even learn about the power struggle between Malkovich’s character and Kurt Russell’s and how it was integral to the failure. All the while we’re getting more and more invested in these characters so that even though we know from the start their lives are in peril, it still fills you with anxiety to see them launched across a room in a spray of fire and shrapnel. It’s the combination of patience and attention to detail that makes these kind of films work, and it’s why “Deepwater Horizon” is an excellent thriller.

The action itself is everything it needs to be. It’s savage, disorientating, and most importantly never loses sight of the humans navigating it. In fact, “Deepwater Horizon” does an excellent job of balancing the morbid beauty of an inferno hundreds of feet tall against the comparably miniscule efforts of a few humans scrambling through it. The film never loses track of its characters, constantly keeping them and their reactions the focus of the film. But neither does it ever shy away from simply stepping back and showing us what 300 feet of fire looks like. It strikes a healthy balance of the two and I was never left unsatisfied.

All in all, “Deepwater Horizon” does exactly what it set out to do, and it does it well. It invests you in its cast and then has you watch them go through a savage, beautiful hell. It’s engaging, foreboding, and tense through and through and my only real critique is that it inspires anxiety to such an extent that it might leave you feeling exhausted after it ends.