Written by: Scott Milam
Directed by: Steven C. Miller
Starring: Jonathan Bennett, Talulah Riley, and Mario Van Peebles
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
You can't scream and hold your breath at the same time.
The latest from the “what the hell would you do?” genre of movies that imagines improbably perilous scenarios, Submerged plunges to some absurd depths to craft an outlandish situation that somehow spirals even more out of control as it unravels. While it doesn’t exactly excel at being a self-contained, small-scale thriller, one wonders if this was even the intent. In this case, the nail-biting situation is something of a Trojan horse that’s been deployed with the express purpose of eventually blowing up in the audience’s face during a ludicrous climax that makes it easier to forgive the film’s various warts, particularly its jarring tonal shifts. You spend so much of the running-time wading through these, doubting if director Steven C. Miller and company actually get it, only to have it eventually confirmed in wild fashion.
Many signs are there early on, however, as Submerged doesn’t simply imagine your standard-issue, everyday “car gets trapped at the bottom of a waterway” scenario. No, this is a particularly lavish vehicle, a ridiculously decked-out stretch limousine with bullet proof windows and in-car oxygen reserves, which are mighty convenient when one finds themselves trapped underwater. With only a couple of hours before they run out of oxygen, a group of twentysomething partygoers scrambles to unravel the mystery behind the plight while also hatching an escape plan.
Obviously, Submerged isn’t just a “what the hell would you do?” film but also a “how in the blue hell did these characters get here?” sort of movie as well. As it sorts out how these characters handle the former (virtually in real-time), it intercuts flashbacks to answer the latter with an increasingly preposterous backstory involving limo driver Matt (Jonathan Bennett) and the group of kids he’s escorting. Adapting to the speed takes a moment, as the various recollections are initially scattered about in non-linear fashion before eventually coalescing into a tragic story involving Matt’s younger brother Todd (Giles Matthey) and the girl he pined for, Jessie (Talulah Riley). The latter is currently riding shotgun in the submerged limo, while the other is conspicuously absent, a development that adds an extra layer of intrigue to the deceptively thin proceedings.
The premise seems simple enough, particularly during the bits that see the characters trying to escape from the limousine. Frankly, this is familiar to an almost stultifying degree at this point, as we watch the group bicker about the situation: some finger-pointing at the shadiest among them breeds some added tension to an already precarious situation. Meanwhile, their every move is thwarted by a car that was ironically designed to keep people out. Even if the constant intertwining of the backstory deflates some of the suspense, the film does a fairly solid job of constantly making you wonder just how they’ll escape, especially once the tides begin to shift, causing the car to drift further out to sea.
What’s more interesting (comparatively speaking, anyway) is the slowly unravelling backstory. During their arguments, the characters drop just enough hints that they were attacked by a group, meaning their submersion is no accident at all. Matt’s recollections eventually begin to stitch together something of a coherent picture, one that slowly escalates Submerged to the stuff of truly outrageous pulp. It doesn’t tackle tricky moral implications like Saw (far, far from it, in fact), but the sprawling narrative arising from a confined conflict here is subtly reminiscent of what that franchise eventually bloated into.
Of course, Saw took at least a handful of movies before it degenerated into a convoluted (but mostly enjoyable) exercise in lurid pulp fiction, whereas Submerged spirals out of control within the space of 98 minutes. Calling it “convoluted” is an understatement, and sifting through its various developments results in clumsy transitions and haphazard tonal inconsistencies. One scene finds the group desperately pleading for its loose cannon to put away a handgun, while the next might find Matt reminiscing about the drama involving Todd and Jessie. The former invites you to watch this group bicker about their impending doom with a morbid curiosity; the latter wants you to feel genuinely invested in at least a few of them. “Whiplash” is a word that obviously comes to mind as the film tries to sort itself out: is it a junky thriller? A junky drama? A junky action movie?
One thing is made abundantly clear: Submerged is junk of the highest order, and I mean that in the best way possible (well, mostly, anyway). Because it’s all over the map, it’s easy to assume much of the film is kind of shoddily-constructed and tonally confused; however, a twist (and let’s just say it involves scuba divers) allows Miller to completely indulge the trashy sensibilities. Doing so involves him essentially peeling the layers off of an onion, as the outrageous script smuggles lies, betrayals, and secrets, eventually revealing them at an absurd clip. It almost veers into parody, but the characters and performances are, in fact, dead serious. In other words, it hits a particular sweet spot, and it’s not one I expect many to share.
I couldn’t help but get wrapped up in the sincere dopiness of a film that starts as a submerged car thriller but has the nerve to escalate into a thinly-veiled recession-era parable. This is not to say Submerged is particularly insightful in this respect, but I’m almost compelled to applaud the attempt, at least, especially when it somehow involves both Willa Ford and Mario Van Peebles. Trust me when I say there’s an entire sub-plot that I haven’t even broached in this review since it unlocks the film, allowing Submerged to clumsily stumble into some Occupy-style politics. Its musings are hardly revelatory and carry the insight of a freshman-level Bernie-Bro, but it’s so out of left field that you can’t help but chuckle at it.
Besides, Submerged doesn’t aspire to impart actual wisdom—if it did, you feel it would at least highlight the irony of casting Van Peebles in a role that flies in the face of his father’s provocative work rather than doing all it can to avoid any kind of moral complexity. At its heart, it’s a schlocky little survival thriller coasting on the almost terminal earnestness of a lead actor who takes it just seriously enough to keep it (ahem) afloat. Ultimately, it subtly recalls the trashy pleasures of Miller’s The Aggression Scale, complete with the invitation to delight in some rousing gore. You’d hardly expect that from a movie whose premise involves a bunch of partygoers being trapped underwater in a bulletproof limo, but watching it zig and zag from Point A to Point Z is half—okay, all—of the fun here.
Submerged arrives on Blu-ray as the latest offering from Scream Factory's partnership with IFC Midnight. The disc features only a trailer, which should be avoided at all costs since it reveals most of the plot.
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