The Cove (PG-13) ***

In this film publicity image released by Roadside Attractions, Mandy-Rae Cruickshank is surrounded by dolphins as she ascends in a scene from, "The Cove." AP Photo/Roadside Attractions.

By Rene Rodriguez, The Miami Herald

The most horrific — and heartbreaking — scene of any movie thus far this year comes at the climax of The Cove. The film is paced like a thriller, written as an expose and intended as a call to arms for ecologists, animal lovers and moviegoers around the world.

The makers of The Cove, which was produced by the Oceanic Preservation Society, mean to get under your skin, and only the most dispassionate and cold-hearted viewer would argue they do not succeed. Director Louie Psihoyos and his team of conservationists (which includes the Miami dolphin-trainer-turned-activist Richard O’Barry) operate with the efficiency of a military unit in order to pull off their mission: Obtain a photographic record of the mass slaughter of dolphins taking place inside a heavily guarded cove in the Japanese port town of Taiji.

That cove — one of three similar killing grounds in the country — is the final destination for dolphins hunted during season, which runs from September to March. The sound-sensitive mammals are first disoriented and frightened toward shore by fishermen who bang on submerged metal poles. Cordoned off by nets, the dolphins are then cherrypicked by trainers from water-theme parks and swim-with attractions, who pay $150,000 per animal (usually bottlenose dolphins, like Flipper).

The remaining animals are then steered toward the cove and killed. One of the hair-raising claims The Cove makes is that a lot of the whale meat sold and consumed in Japan is really toxic dolphin meat with levels of mercury 20 times higher than the limit set by the World Health Organization. The makers of The Cove hope that by alerting the world to the bait-and-switch tactic, the Japanese government-sanctioned practice of fishing and killing dolphins will cease.

But a movie must do more than dole out frightening facts. It must be visceral and visual, so the crew of The Cove dons night-vision goggles, hides surveillance cameras in fake rocks designed by George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic, and employs the services of a pair of divers capable of swimming 300 feet beneath the surface on one lungful of air — all with the intent of documenting the dolphin slaughter carried out by a couple of dozen fishermen.

The mission is a success, and the footage gives The Cove its nightmarish power. The killing, once it begins, is abominable. The dolphins seem to be literally screaming in terror. The fishermen plunge their spears again and again into the lake, finding a target with almost every stab. One dolphin, mortally wounded, writhes in agony, its tail thrashing the water’s surface at a horrible speed. Another dying dolphin tries to leap from the water and onto the shore in a desperate attempt to avoid the harpoons.

Eventually, the lagoon grows quiet, its waters now deep red, and the silence feels merciful. Soon, a fresh batch of captive dolphins will be shepherded in. The Cove demands to be seen.

With: Richard O’Barry, Simon Hutchins, Mandy-Rae Cruickshank, Kirk Krack.Director: Louie Psihoyos.

Screenwriter: Mark Monroe.

Producers: Paula DuPre Pesmen, Fisher Stevens.

A Roadside Attractions release. Running time: 92 minutes. Brief vulgar language, graphic depiction of dolphin slaughter. Playing at area theaters.


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