Many moons ago, desperate for an idea that contained one character, one location, and so cost tuppence to make, (a Scottish malaise born out of financial necessity) yet be packed full of drama and tension, I wasted two days pacing up and down in my office, scrubbing my designer stubble, staring out windows, doing endless computer Solitaire, to no result.
No sooner had I given up when a film premiered almost its entire length devoted to a man incarcerated in a coffin, and his futile attempts to navigate help by screaming into the fading illumination of a flip phone. The rest was pitch darkness. The film was the thriller Buried, (2010) directed by Rodrigo Cortéz.
Ingeniously, the coffin was constructed so the camera could shoot from any angle. Damn! Why hadn’t I thought of that? It starred Ryan Reynolds, his cigarette lighter, and a battery depleting cell phone. At the time I thought it a four star winner, but now we have a female version of lonesome peril we can see Buried is very good but The Shallows is a gem.
Some critics report the film as a minor masterpiece. I’m not sure what that means. I assume they think it small scale but perfectly formed. So was the harrowing Son of Saul but that is a masterpiece. This film is expertly shot and crafted and great entertainment, a real feat when you consider how jaundiced we’ve become about shark stories, but the silliness of the premise and the implausible last minutes let it down.
The heroine is a feisty actress new to me called Blake Lively, a movie star name in the tradition of Gale Storm, Slim Pickins, and Rip Torn. Coincidentally it’s the creation of another Spanish director, Jaume Collet-Serra, whose iridescent, cool approach made the silly horror flick Orphan worth paying top dollar to see. Even more of a coincidence, Blake Lively is married to Ryan Reynolds. How’s that for monopolising one-person movies?
This time Collet-Serra serves up a hundred per cent silly movie that’s an absolute winner. Without an ounce of body fat on the script, or on Blake Lively for that matter, slim as a stoat, in real life a mother of three, all lively Lively kids, this is well-timed to float past a summer of absolutely puerile blockbusters, boring reboots, and squishy sequels, not to mention redundant alliteration.
For a slick 87 minutes, The Shallows delivers on its testosterone male grabbing promise: Blake Lively, in a bikini, fighting a shark. That’s about the gist of it.
There are a few minor characters, and two co-stars, the shark and a seagull. The premise reduces the enterprise to a female slasher movie, but I assure you it’s clever, smart, beautifully shot and edited, and you’ll be cheering by the end.
Nancy (Lively), photographed in a golden haze, a bored medical school student on the verge of dropping out, (knowledge of the human anatomy handy for stemming wounds) thumbs a lift from a Mexican resort to a ‘secret’ beach.
The beach is off the beaten path, secluded, but Nancy has a number of photographs twenty years earlier of her equally athletic-looking mother at the very same spot. This beach is where she wants to be. She has her surf board.
Exactly what emotion she is experiencing isn’t explained. Most children I know never want to repeat what their parents did, or go places where their parents visited, not, that is, until in late middle age, feeling mortal and nostalgic, empathy their motivation.
That’s all the rationale Nancy needs to satisfy us why she wants to be there, and all we really need to know to get thoroughly involved in the story, but the writer, Anthony Janwinski, adds unnecessary exposition. We learn Nancy is struggling to come to terms with the death of her mother, and she’s from Galveston, Texas.
Is knowing where she was born going to make a difference to the shark?
The direction is relentless, fast-paced, the camera moving in and around the rock she finds herself stranded, circling Great White pinning her there, its black aerodynamic shape gliding silently, effortlessly around Nancy’s precarious sanctuary, safe there until the tide comes in. The only thing she has for company is a wounded seagull, a herring gull if I’m correct, the American species. First time I’ve seen a gull as co-star in a movie.
The camera then drops in and out of the water, sound crystal clear and then muffled in an instant. It’s a wonderful technique for making us think we are on the rock beside her or watching from the water’s surface.
Lively does a terrific job of having us believe she has no options but an untimely grizzly death. Nevertheless, there’s hardly a moment where her character isn’t thinking through a problem, or formulating some sort of plan, or scanning the horizon for help or a solution, one moment resolved to be courageous, the next sinking into despair. As a result, Lively dominates every minute, pushing the story along without a clunky moment.
There is one sadistic scene I have to be careful not to give away.
Nancy sees a man asleep on the beach, empty bottle by his side. Finally she gets his attention, but instead of helping her he ransacks her belongings. Then he switches his attention to her surf board, the half-naked blonde on the rock too remote to stop him stealing it, the board just a stone’s throw from him. Appetite stimulated, the shark’s also, he dives in to grab it, and Nancy, a virtuous heroine, frantically warns him away.
Once the shark makes its move, dum-dum, dum-dum, dum-dum, dum-dum… we forget the man’s vile intentions because we’re on our seats shouting at the idiot to stay on the shoreline and call the police. The shot stays on Lively, her hand-over-her-mouth gagging her reflexes and horror and … the shot cuts to the man’s face grimacing on the shore.
That’s fine, lean cut, prime movie making on a shoe-string, a director with an innate sense of drama, able to avoid cliché of the kind you’d expect in yet another shark movie.
In a powerful image underwater, the blood from Nancy’s wound fills the screen. That’s one of the director’s signatures, digitally assisted travelling takes, which here follows the blow-by-blow account of Nancy’s first attack from the shark. The shot dips above and below the water aggressively, changing pace to emphasize in slow motion Nancy’s collisions with the sharp stoned, razor shelled, spiky ocean floor.
The plot could have been lifted from the first few minutes of Spielberg’s Jaws, stretched out into a full-length movie in its own right. We get to see the life and will power of that fated girl on the beach at midnight. In The Shallows our Nancy aims to live. The Shallows shares the same plot as Jaws, survival, fortitude, bravery, and ingenuity. And it’s the perfect length, the length of a real-time night’s dream, just under ninety minutes.
“Learning to be self-reliant takes time and hard work. Know where you’re going, and make your own decisions”, goes the voice-over the trailer, and in The Shallows Nancy proves that to be a gross understatement.
This is a film you enter assuming you’ll be scunnered by having seen it all before, but Collet-Serra proves there’s life in them killer dorsal fins. Though you’re certain such a lovely lithe body will never be sacrificed to an ugly stomach sporting three rows of teeth, safety a mere 200 yards from a sun blessed beach, cinematographically terrific shots and lots of horror filled frights put you through the wringer just the same.
By the way, I eventually thought of a one-person plot, a hit man trapped in an elevator, a fire engulfing the lift from the top floor down where he had carried out his assassination. The screenplay has been purchased, cast approached, Los Angeles locations checked out.
- Star rating: Four stars
- Cast: Blake Lively, Great White Shark, Seagull
- Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
- Writer: Anthony Jaswinski
- Cinematography: Flavio Martinez
- Duration: 87 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?