After Fantastic Fest’s screening of The Boat (2018), there was a Q&A with the film’s writer, producer and lone actor, Joe Azzopardi. Joe’s dad, Winston Azzopardi, co-wrote, produced and directs the film and the two apparently didn’t always see eye to eye. Joe commented that he was drawn to keeping the film and the boat ambiguous, and that the audience didn’t need to be spoon-fed any of the story or beats within it. He then said his father leaned towards the other end of the spectrum, seeking to make The Boat more of a popcorn thriller experience. And, with the aid of editor Daniel Lapira, the father/son team was able to find a happy medium. Indeed, a contented middle is what they got in a suspenseful, mostly satisfying tale that rebels against Hollywood’s credo of “More! Bigger! Faster!”

It certainly must have been a struggle putting a ninety-minute film together about one man lost at sea. The story is so simple it almost doesn’t exist: A man named The Sailor boards a ship he thinks has been abandoned. The ship may or may not be haunted.

The story is really more of a concept, or even a tagline. But, The Boat doesn’t really need much more. It relies heavily on set pieces, and establishes a mood that is often counter intuitive to most supernatural tales, with a huge portion of the film set in daylight, or in spaces so closed off it’s hard to imagine how they even got a camera in there. It does the unexpected, and the creepiness of The Boat rests in small moments: a door mysteriously locks (or unlocks), or the Sailor almost “accidentally” strangles himself. There are no blustery special effects; the photography and filmmakers’ ingenuity speaks for itself. Suspense is conjured through organic means, and proves once again that less can be more.

Although there’s only one actor in the film (Azzopardi’s troubled eyes are almost as haunted as the ship), he is not alone. There are two other important characters: The sea and the boat itself. The setting is gorgeous but distressing and is used to its fullest extent, showcasing both the beauty and dread of nature and our place within it.

The Sailor’s relationship with the ship is fascinating. He’s obviously a master seaman, and takes many ingenious steps to defend himself. However, in one moment when he finds a potential means for escape, the Sailor boards the ship once more, and lovingly repairs it and sets it up as his new (hopefully temporary) home. It’s that ying-yang relationship and the opacity of his draw to it that keeps the viewer on their toes. Somehow the filmmakers manage to keep our sympathy with the Sailor even though we’re not quite sure why he chooses to stay.

However, despite the mood and passion behind the shoot, at certain times, the film, which is already stretched thin, spends just a little too much time in certain spaces. The Boat is an expansion of a short film titled Head (2016), and a sizable portion of it is set in a tiny bathroom. Surprisingly, there is plenty of action to be had, but it almost loses its audience by stalling the dynamic pacing and movement on the ship for just a little too long. It’s a welcome relief when the Sailor is finally able to explore the rest of the ship.

The Boat is a wonderfully puzzling piece of cinema. It’s gorgeous to look at, intriguing and a pretty fun theater going experience. It never gives us the full story of either The Sailor or the ship, and it lets the audience determine what it all means. Thoughtful, simple and worth a look.