If only Brokeback Mountain and the Frozen musical hadn’t already claimed it, “Love is a force of nature” would be the perfect tagline for Adrift. Based on actual events that resulted in Tami Oldham Ashcraft floating helplessly in a critically damaged sailboat for 41 days in 1983 after an unexpected hurricane, Adrift is part disaster movie, part romance (Oldham set sailing with her boyfriend of five months, Richard Sharp). But more than that, it’s a horror story that asks (but never answers) what’s scarier: the open ocean, a catastrophic storm, or the potential loss of a loved one. It’s all terrible!
Imagine waking up bloodstained and delirious in a flooded cabin. You make your way to the deck and see that the sail has been ripped off your boat by the storm. You’re surrounded by gray water that gleams like coal below a sky that’s a few shades lighter. That’s how Baltasar Kormákur’s Adrift opens up, with Shailene Woodley in the role of Tami. The camera pulls back to reveal the horizon line, but no land in sight. The best argument for seeing Adrift on the big screen, in fact, is for that kind of shot, which occurs a few times in the movie, that shows how tiny Tami and her vessel are, floating on the immense ocean. This movie is so overwhelming that, midway through its brisk 90-minute run time, I developed a headache from holding a knit brow in concern.
This movie played me like a tuba in a Jaws flick. I almost feel dumb for being so manipulated by it. Through flashbacks it weaves the timeline of Tami and Richard’s courtship into the story of post-storm survival, but we have little sense of why they fell in love—just that they did. There’s a brief discussion as they cavort in Tahiti about him being impressed by her bloke-like tendencies (because she’s courageous enough to jump off small cliffs into water below?) and his woman-like ones (because he’s emotional?), but that’s about it.
They meet when Richard (played by Sam Claflin) sails into Tahiti, where Tami is scrubbing boats to support her lifestyle of, I don’t know, being on islands? In any case, it’s clear that she was something of a drifter before she was adrift. She gazes at him lovingly, he invites her to a dinner and vaguely accommodates her vegetarianism, and bam, they’re inseparable. The movie is old-school in the way it just assumes that you’ll care about this couple by merely putting them onscreen. Given Woodley and Claflin’s chemistry, I did. There was something realistically bland about these characters, who had nothing much to talk about beyond his contagious love of sailing and their attraction for each other. People are boring! Physical attraction is powerful! That they were together for a mere five months and still clearly in the honeymoon phase (at least, per the film’s depiction) makes their encounter with the life-threatening storm all the more tragic. They didn’t even have the chance to start resenting each other.
They set sail from Tahiti after being offered $10,000 by a wealthy couple to drop off their boat for them in San Diego. And then life (a category 4 hurricane) happens. After the storm, Tami spots Richard hanging off a dinghy some yards away—a real “the dinghy saved mah baby” moment, if you will. Every single thing she attempts she succeeds in, with a great amount of peril along the way, which is to say she finally retrieves him, and sees that his ribs are broken and his leg is badly injured with bone protruding from his shin. For a PG-13 movie, there is an abundance of wound gore in Adrift. The movie is pure endurance porn. His wounds fester, her lips get more chapped. They start running out of water, and then food (their meager stash includes sardines and Spam, forcing Tami to violate her vegetarianism). She tries spearfishing but it’s hard! She becomes increasingly haggard, wearing a bandana atop her nest of knotting hair so that she goes from looking like a Rock of Love girl, to looking like Bret Michaels, to looking like a Poison fan who passed out at the urinal of a dive bar, to looking like a Rob Zombie villain.
As she uses the sailing knowledge she’s picked up from Richard in an attempt to point herself to land, he decays on the deck. Tender words scrape out of his throat: “I wish you’d never met me so you wouldn’t be in this mess.” “Then I wouldn’t have this to remember. I wouldn’t trade this for anything,” she answers. I should definitely be embarrassed for being owned by this movie, but I’m not.
Via the flashback timeline, it all builds up to the storm thrashing their tiny sailboat. It’s a spectacular scene, clearly filmed with thrift (per STX’s m.o.) via close-ups and green screens, and climaxing with a single shot from above and then below as the boat capsizes. (Unless I missed something, it’s unclear how it got back upright, just like it’s unclear how Richard supported his globe-faring lifestyle.) Now I’m going to briefly mention spoilers so stop reading if you’re going to see this. (I think you should?)
I won’t give the twist away, but just acknowledging that there is a twist is probably enough to tip you off. It’s a twist we’ve by now seen several times to virtually the same effect (I’ll give you a hint: Gravity). But I’ll be damned if this didn’t get me too. It all worked for me. Like a calm sea after a devastating storm, Adrift is gently moving.