[Editor’s note: This article contains spoilers and reveals the ending of “Adrift.”]
“Adrift” is hardly the kind of movie you might expect to be harboring a massive plot twist. A waterlogged survival thriller about a young woman who’s stranded at sea for 41 days with nothing but her wits and a jar of peanut butter to keep her alive, on the surface it seems like pretty straightforward stuff. We’re talking about a sturdy, tactile little film in which the average scene consists of Shailene Woodley sticking her eye into a sextet or trying to conquer her character’s vegetarianism so that she can stomach a spare tin of Spam — it’s not exactly an episode of “Westworld.”
Besides, there isn’t really much of a mystery about what’s going to happen in the end. “Adrift” tells the harrowing true story of Tami Oldham, and was adapted from a memoir written by Oldham herself, so it’s probably safe to assume that she manages to make it through this ordeal. And she does. Her fiancé, however, isn’t quite so lucky. That’s where the plot thickens.
His name is Richard Sharp, he’s played by “Hunger Games” alum Sam Claflin, and he’s swept overboard during the storm that obliterates their sailboat. Tami conks her head during the chaos, and is totally alone when she comes to — it’s only later, when the skies clear and the waters calm, that she finds Richard clinging to a piece of wood bobbing in the ocean.
He’s severely injured, with a deep gash in his right leg, but alive. Tami hoists him onto the bow of the ship and does her best to care for him as she single-handedly tries to steer them both home. Richard, a genuinely decent man who loves Tami and regrets getting her mixed up in this mess, does his best to offer his future wife some words of hope and encouragement, often talking her through the best moments of their brief romance.
And then, after nearly six weeks at sea, Tami confronts the grim truth that Richard isn’t going to make it — that her last few drops of water and morsels of food are too precious to waste on a dead man. “I have to let you go,” she whispers through her tears. When the camera tilts back up to where Richard was lying down, his body is gone. It was never really there. All that chatter about “sailing hallucinations” was a bit more pointed than it first appeared. Cue the coffee cup dropping to the ground in slow-motion and shattering all over the floor.
In truth, Richard Sharp drowned at sea when a massive storm set upon the boat that he was sailing across the Pacific with his fiancee, leaving Tami Oldham to fend for herself. But the script, written by Aaron and Jordan Kandell and David Branson Smith, tweaks the basic facts of the matter in order to create a more subjective depiction of Oldham’s experience, or at least a more accessibly emotional one. It might be the boldest example of misdirection in any biopic since “A Beautiful Mind.”
Emphasizing what Werner Herzog might call the “ecstatic truth” of its subject’s near-death experience, “Adrift” effectively prioritizes the reality of Oldham’s mental state over the reality of her physical condition (albeit in an effort to explicate them both). It’s the kind of twist you might see coming from a mile away in a different kind of movie, but one that might seem unfair — perhaps even unethical — in a movie that purports to dramatize a true story.
For director Baltasar Kormákur, it was the only honest way to tell Tami Oldham’s story. “If you read her book or look at her interviews, she was talking to someone the whole way,” Kormákur told IndieWire. “Yes, it’s unclear who it was, but she was hallucinating — she writes about how she thought she was dead and in purgatory. And she’s said in interviews that her love for Richard saved her life. I didn’t want to say that, because it seemed heavy-handed, but I don’t mind people knowing that she said it. That’s her choice of words — that’s her reality. I really want you as an audience in her perspective.”
Courtesy of STXfilms
Kormákur also justified the decision to take such a literal approach to Tami’s hallucinations and put an imaginary version of Richard right there on the boat with her: “I’m making a film, not a radio play,” the director explained, “so I’d rather have him appear and give them an actual relationship on the boat than just have her talk to a disembodied voice. I didn’t want to just make ‘All Is Lost’ with a woman.”
Kormákur even stresses that he’s not really trying to fool people, as there are clues hidden throughout the film. “The first shot of the movie is of somebody floating down to the bottom of the ocean, and you know it’s not Tami! Why do I do that? Because I want you to know.” He then went on to cite a scene later in the film where Richard disappears from behind Tami as she strums on his guitar; some viewers might write it off as a continuity error, if they notice it at all, but Kormákur felt it was very important to include such breadcrumbs. “By giving you the option of seeing these hints, but also still going with the story, we’re doing the same thing that the sea is doing to Tami when it provokes her hallucinations: We know Richard is gone, but we choose to believe that he’s still there because we want him to be there.”
Oldham had to hold on to her memories of Richard in order to survive and find the inner strength that he always saw in her, and “Adrift” attempts to make that core part of her experience as vivid as possible — alive in a way that only the movies can make it. Of course, it’s hard not to imagine how surreal (or even traumatic) it might be for Oldham to watch this telling of her story, or how difficult it might be for her to see such a tactile rendering of her most painful moments.
But Kormákur insists that she loved it. “She felt it was very true to her experience,” the director said. And then he revealed why his solution was something of an elegant compromise: “You know, she even created a version of Richard out of his clothes. I didn’t want to have a doll in the film, because having the actor there was enough, but Tami really created something of him. It was so convincing that, when they rescued her, they asked if there was another person there on the boat.”
There’s a fine line between a powerful story of perseverance and a floating remake of Lucky McKee’s “May.” It’s a credit to Kormákur and his writing team that they were able to walk it in a way that spoke to Oldham’s experience, rocking the boat without tipping it over.
Additional reporting by Chris O’Falt.