The Vessel (2016) review
Book Snorting and Donkey Pushing
Filmed in Puerto Rico (the film has two versions: one in English and one in Spanish), The Vessel concentrates on a small town still reeling from the effects of a tsunami from ten years prior. “The Wave” wiped out 46 children, every child in town, while they were at school. The town refuses to move past its hardships as couples refuse to have any more children and Soraya (Aris Mejias) is a widow clinging on to the books her husband used to teach before inevitably being swallowed by the sea.
Leo (Lucas Quintana) is left caring for his screw loose mother Fidelia (Jacqueline Duprey) after his brother dies in The Wave. When celebrating his last night together with his best friend Gabriel (Hiram Delgado) before Gabriel leaves for the city, the two drunkenly fall into the ocean and both die. Three hours later, Leo awakens as if nothing ever happened. He’s seen as a savior that can perform miracles by the simple-minded town and the local priest Father Douglas (Martin Sheen) believes that Leo has an obligation to inspire those around him.
The Vessel is the writing and directing feature film debut for cinematographer Julio Quintana while his brother Lucas takes on his first big role as Leo. The one thing that will likely attract you to The Vessel is the fact that it’s executively produced by Terrence Malick. Even though Malick’s films generally polarize audiences, there’s no denying that his films revolve around beautiful cinematography. The Vessel has a unique perspective that makes the viewer feel like they’re constantly chasing after the person or persons being showcased on screen. The Puerto Rican landscape combined with the town being located directly on the beach and a camera angle that captures everything dynamically and in high definition is absolutely visually stimulating. The camera often seems to observe the action from over someone’s shoulder; almost like a third person shooter video game.
The events of the film are pointless. Leo is thrown half a dozen allegories to Jesus, but they lead nowhere. He builds this structure out of the rubble that was the school, which suddenly becomes a boat when Leo turns it upside down one evening. With the help of a donkey, Leo pulls his hobo ark down to the dock. The film shows Leo struggling to get the donkey to move at one point and it dawns on you that this is a metaphor for the entire film. Watching The Vessel results in you feeling like you’re pushing a stubborn donkey into the ocean.
What really gets to you is how the people in this town act. They have this mob mentality that changes direction on a whim, then changes back or transitions in a completely different direction because they believe everything they hear. A religious reputation suddenly becomes the answer to everything as everyone latches onto this concept like it’s the sole life vest keeping them afloat in a raging sea. A priest basically blackmails one of the town occupants because he sees a way to inspire the people again and it rests on Leo’s shoulders. Everyone keeps proclaiming that Leo owes so much to the townspeople, when they haven’t done anything for him. His mom is ungrateful and obnoxious, his brother and best friend are dead, and the woman he’s loved since grade school is still dreaming about her deceased husband. All anyone in town does is ask for favors and gives passersby dirty looks. Leo is depressed and miserable and obviously has the desire to move on or at least let go of the very thing that is making him feel so horribly. Meanwhile he’s intimidated by the town priest to “do the right thing” while his mother acts out because she feels like the wrong brother died and she takes out her frustration and inability to deal with loss on the one son she still has. Why Leo hasn’t hopped onto the one motorcycle in town and sped off in whichever direction will take him the furthest away from such a soul-sucking environment is beyond comprehension.
If you can somehow get past the cult-like townspeople who demand miracles from Leo and drag women by the hair on the beach when they disagree with something they’ve done, then Soraya will likely rub you the wrong way if you haven’t been rubbed raw by this point in the film. Soraya and Leo have a history; they were arranged to be married at a very young age but Leo put it off and Soraya ended up marrying someone else. Now that nothing is between them being together, Leo spends his days spying on Soraya but only while she does laundry and dries her wet hair. Leo is essentially the worst peeping tom ever. Meanwhile Soraya is all for spending more time with Leo until the townspeople notice that they’re spending time together and frown upon the idea. Then suddenly Soraya panics and has to have everything go back to Anguishopolis. She enjoys the scent of her husband’s books since they reminded her of him, but when there’s this sequence of her just frantically snorting as many books as possible you’re left with the urge of throwing each and every one of them directly at her head in hopes of knocking some sense into one of the nincompoops living in this one jackass town.
Even with Martin Sheen’s impressive Chris Cringle facial hair, The Vessel annoys and irritates more than anything else. Its religious allusions violently crash into the one brick wall still left standing in town long before they’ve fully materialized and the acting mostly rests on everyone being stubborn and ignorant to a superhuman extent. The Vessel may be alluring to look at, but it’s absolutely torturous to endure and practically unbearable to watch.