Slow-burning psychological dramas are tough to nail down. It often involves the right mixture of character and world building, a solid if not deceptively simple premise and a large enough injection of tension to sustain a feature-length plot. Turkish director Tolga Karaçelik’s Ivy (2015) ticks all of these boxes and a few more. This is a film built on Kafkaesque dread, where ennui is the ultimate genesis of paranoia. It constantly teeters on the razor’s edge of melodrama but manages to swerve any potential traps entailed therein. What results is an engrossing character study that delivers a near-perfect final act. But first, a group of six seamen are left to man their ship when they learn there is a stowaway on-board.
The vessel’s unseen owner has fallen into debt and they – a skeleton crew – must maintain the quality of the ship until the can safely and legally dock. What quickly becomes evident is that these men are more different than they initially realised, with conflicting personal ideologies, fears and motivations quickly causing distress. As the days wear on and they begin to grow restless for answers, emotions fray at the edges until finally its their respective psyches that start to break down. Karaçelik’s characters all thrive on archetypes (men that are deeply religious, or drugged and lazy, or meek and nervous) forced together under the most benign of circumstances. None of them ever fall too deeply into the melodramatic holes of the roles they’ve been given and, in all instances, these attributes prove to be their ultimate coping mechanisms as time wears on and tensions run high.
Cenk’s a stoned grifter who spends most of his time stirring the pot rather than being productive. In the hands of Saribacak, Cenk becomes the emotional epicentre of the film, driving the paranoia of the others in a craftily manipulative fashion – Saribacak is thoroughly engrossing. The other major selling point is the deceptively taut script. Karaçelik lets loose on the gas pedal to keep the plot moving but, as all masters of the psychological drama will note, doesn’t press firmly down until the third act. As the ennui of the group’s life aboard builds and emotions become fragile, Karaçelik makes sure to unspool with heavy does of dread and mystery. The feeling that there is something unreliable about the narrative, the “Is this really happening?” feeling that accompanies stories of the ilk settles in quickly and grips tightly. Deaths and fatalities become questionable; time seems to stand still as the men lose the will to work; intermittent shots of the shoreline that feels so close yet is so far away – these are just a few of the factors working in Ivy‘s favour. This is a brilliant piece of filmmaking: quiet in tone but deeply unsettling and entirely engrossing.