Of every conceivable genre, none is more nebulous and straightforward than the thriller; it simply has to elicit excitement. And while every description of Deepwater Horizon I’ve read classifies the movie as such, I’m not sure excitement is the emotion it evokes. Or more accurately, I’m not sure I want to admit to being excited.
There’s an elegant simplicity to the movie. It’s a plain story with plain characters based on a New York Times account of the disaster. Despite playing real-life figures, Mark Wahlberg and Kurt Russell offer variations on their own personas. (Although the latter sports a working-class-mustache-and-crew-cut combo.) John Malkovich’s Donald Vidrine is a Cajun cartoon of corporate corruption. And Kate Hudson’s wife-in-distress does a nifty trick with her eyes that ignites her husband’s libido over Skype. Only Gina Rodriguez, as a gear-head who suffers a critical moment of self-doubt, has something like a character arc. The movie even opens with a child explaining where crude oil comes from.
But Deepwater Horizon isn’t concerned with complexity; it’s a populist polemic with a singular goal: to take its audience to hell and back. And on those terms, it’s an undeniably engaging, visceral effort. Like a slasher movie, it’s the kind of thing that functions on an atavistic level. We know what’s going to happen, and there’s a dreadful inevitability to its acronym-filled, info-dumping front half that makes promises its pop construction can’t fulfill.
But that flimsiness is what invests the movie’s back half with such weight. Like the rig itself—a shiny shell of macho over-confidence—the movie is built to implode. And when it does, Deepwater Horizon turns into a riveting, white-knuckle knockout. In its fleet second act, the movie conjures horror after horror. The camera squeezes into machinery; everything’s over-clocked. We see pistons pump, lock, and ignite. And in this gigantic piece of floating shrapnel, the human body doesn’t stand a chance. It’s an agonizing experience, and nowhere close to fun. As a movie designed to pound its audience into submission, Deepwater Horizon isn’t far from the rig itself; it’s a reckless engineering marvel. Over the course of one evening and dozens of poor decisions, a towering achievement is reduced to a flaming, toxic manifestation of hell on earth. As oil-slicked birds dive from the sky and the seas flare, one gets the sense that nature is pushing back, punishing mankind for its hubris.
One also gets the sense that enjoying Deepwater Horizon amounts to something like profanity. It’s self-flagellating entertainment—a bone-crushing action movie designed to invoke the horrors of bones being crushed.
Just before initiating the countdown that culminates in the worst oil disaster in American history, Malkovich’s corporate higher-up offers a smug excuse for BP’s inhuman pursuit of profits: it’s complicated, he explains. The movie doesn’t agree in the slightest; he’s the kind of snake who ends up stealing lifeboats. But maybe he’s onto something, too. So much went so wrong that BP’s empire was bound to burn. Either way, Deepwater Horizon is a gripping, troublesome thrill.
Deepwater Horizon. Directed by Peter Berg. Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, and John Malkovich. Opens in Kansas City September 30.