Review: The Red Turtle (Film)
by Grayson Bray Morris
This essay was first published in August 2016 on this site. Its permalink is here.
Either my google-fu has abandoned me, or I am, in fact, the only person who was disappointed by The Red Turtle.
Disappointed doesn’t actually cover it. I was incensed. Outraged. Royally pissed off. (Plot spoilers follow.)
The main character is lost at sea in a terrible storm. He washes up on an uninhabited island. He builds raft after raft to escape, and each time, his raft is mysteriously destroyed by an unseen creature bumping it from below. At last we (and he) discover the ostensible culprit: a massive red sea turtle. Later, the turtle crawls onto the sand, and in his rage, our protagonist beats its head with a stick, then rolls it onto its back and jumps up and down on it.
All of this is understandable, and so far, I’m on board.
Our protagonist starts building another raft, walking back and forth past the helpless to move, now unconscious turtle. Back and forth, back and forth. At last—at long last—he realizes the horror of what he’s doing: killing a turtle because he’s angry. He tries to turn the beast back over, but arcanely, he can’t (so how did he do it the first time? And why does he try only once, then give up?). He splashes it with sea water, hoping to revive it. None of that works.
Then the sea turtle miraculously turns into a beautiful human woman. To which I can only say: HOW FUCKING CONVENIENT.
I so hoped the movie wasn’t going where it seemed to be after this bit of magic. Alas, that was exactly where it was going. They fall in love, have a baby, watch their son grow to adulthood and strike out on his own across the sea, and grow old together. After our protagonist dies peacefully in his sleep, the bereft woman turns back into a turtle and slides back into the sea.
So I know that the idea was this: the turtle has taken a fancy to the man and doesn’t want him to leave. She sabotages his rafts. Then she turns into a human so they can be together. Only that isn’t how it played out for me. Here’s the movie I saw.
A man is lost at sea. Builds rafts to escape. Rafts keep getting destroyed, no idea why; whenever he looks, there’s nothing in the water as far as he can see. Third raft gets destroyed, and there happens to be a big red turtle nearby at the time. Later the turtle crawls up onto the beach for the first time ever, so seems to me like the turtle’s new in town. I mean, otherwise why didn’t he see her the first two times his raft got pummeled? And if she likes him so much and has been there all along, wouldn’t she have just crawled up onto the beach on day one and done the turn-into-lovely-woman trick right away?
Dude is understandably frustrated and takes it out (violently) on the sea turtle. Okay, I get that. But then he leaves it to die in the sun as he builds a new raft. And not just, oh shit, I forgot about the turtle while I was busy; he’s building the raft right beside the parched and dying turtle. That’s…awful. I don’t like this man. He was okay before, but now he’s actually kind of a real asshole. Hours and hours and hours and maybe days later, he has a change of heart, realizes he’s being kind of really, really, murderously horrible. Makes a half-hearted and pathetic attempt to turn the turtle back over. Then gives up five seconds later. Way too little, way too late, in my book.
And then the turtle turns into a beautiful human woman, who leads him up into the bamboo fields for some nice fine nookie.
Can anyone say STOCKHOLM SYNDROME?
The problem is that the movie, as written, did nothing to show me (a) that the turtle loves the man and wants to be with him and, more importantly, (b) what makes this man worth her love in the first place. And that’s a shame, because it would have been easy enough to do: there’s a perfect save-the-cat opportunity early in the film, right after he’s washed up on the island for the first time, when several baby sea turtles are scuttling toward the water. Just put one (or more) of them in peril and have him save it, at some expense to himself. And show me the red turtle watching him do it.
And then, you know, just generally don’t have him be a violent asshole later on.