How long can you hold your breath for?

I’m not talking about trying to get rid of a mild case of hiccups, I mean really hold it. Like your life depended on it.

Try it now.

Take a deep breath and hold it. Don’t hyperventilate first, taking a couple of fast, deep breaths to purge the carbon dioxide from your blood in the hope of tricking your brain into ignoring that burning, bursting feeling in your lungs, that pounding in your ears as your heart rate climbs, the involuntary spasming of your diaphragm, the flickering dancing at the edge of your vision, the rising panic… That’s cheating. Just take a breath. And hold it.

How long did you manage?

30 seconds? A minute? How good did it feel as the air rushed back into your body and the pounding in your head receded? Most of us can manage a couple of minutes, two or three, free divers and David Blaine more.

In Ron Scalpello’s Pressure the question of how long you can hold your breath may just be crucial to the survival of a mismatched group of deep water divers trapped in a diving bell at the bottom of the Indian Ocean after their support vessel is destroyed by a storm and the oil company who employs them essentially abandons them to their fate. With time, heat and air running out, the men must battle their own panic, paranoia and claustrophobia to work together to survive as each man struggles with their own personal demons.

There’s little that’s surprising about Pressure. It takes a clichéd group of disparate and familiar characters (the grizzled veteran with a dark secret, the God-bothering, by-the-book leader, the drunk, loose cannon and the rookie who’s desperate to get home to his wife and child), abandons them in an impossible situation (trapped at the bottom of the ocean with no chance of escape) and then, quite literally, turns up the pressure on them as the men are forced to deal with the situation and their impending doom in their own ways, each haunted by past mistakes they’ve made and the choices that have brought them to this moment, each desperate to survive or to find some measure of redemption.

But its very familiarity, its predictability, is key to Pressure’s success as a thriller. We know who these characters are, we know what’s at stake. And we know that the death that stalks them is not a heroic one. It’s not loud and flashy and glorious. It’s sneaky. It creeps. It’s slow and it’s inexorable. It’s hyperthermia, the cold seeping into their flesh, their bones, stealing their breath. It’s hypoxia, the lack of oxygen befuddling them, making them light-headed, interfering with their ability to think straight. It’s time itself, the air running out even as the promise of rescue glimmers before them.

As in his previous film Offender, Scalpello makes the most of his minimal budget working with cinematographer Richard Mott to create an inky black forbidding world while the claustrophobic diving bell seems to constrict rather than contain the actors trapped within it and while a surreal dream sequence where rookie Jones (Joe Cole) is tempted by a deadly fantasy water nymph (Gemita Samarra) is a little obvious the scenes where Danny Huston’s Engel finds himself walking across a sea floor littered with the corpses of their support vessel’s crew or Matthew Goode’s Mitchell finds himself in a field of deadly jellyfish are stunning and haunting.

The performances are solid with the inexperienced Cole perhaps the film’s weakest link (but he does have very bad hair to battle with) but Goode and Huston are on top form, both doing some of their best work in ages, Huston in particular restrained and unshowy. While it may owe a huge debt to the likes of Das Boot, Pioneer and The Abyss or classic under sea peril movies like Gray Lady Down, Pressure succeeds on it’s own terms, it’s a tight, tense, claustrophobic little thriller with great performances that doesn’t ease up until it’s final scene.

DVD Review: Pressure
4.0Overall Score
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