The Shallows
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The Shallows

When Steven Spielberg released ‘Jaws,' it profoundly changed the cinematic landscape. The Great White Shark took on a role that extended beyond a deadly antagonist elevating the creature into a sinister killing machine that seemed to preternaturally intent on inflicting death. The amazing aspect of this was the shark not anthropomorphized; its only motivation defined by its niche in nature as an apex predatory; find, kill and consume anything it encounters. Considering the masterful skill and artistry infused in every frame of the film it is unlikely that a film will match its effect. The best thing about such movies is how the set the bar for other filmmakers/ they may never reach that level, but its pursuit propels them to hone their artistry. Director Jaume Collet-Serra has been around for about a decade during which he has concentrated on quality over sheer quantity; horror fans cheered when he had a metal rod kill Paris Hilton in his remake of ‘House of Wax’ but his talent began truly manifest in his enfant terrible opus, ‘Orphan.' The lessons in pacing and escalating the sense of terror paid off in his latest work, ‘The Shallows.' Superficially another shark waiting for dinner movie but Mr. Collet-Serra’s realization of the tautly suspenseful screenplay by Anthony Jaswinski provides the audience with sufficient frightening moments and genuine thrills to bring good old fashion psychological horror back into an aquatic creature feature. The creative team od director and writer are honest in not trying to recreate Jaws, but they did set out to use many of the same techniques perfected by Mr. Spielberg as a thematic palette to tell a different scary story. I have often heard it mentioned that most shark attacks occur in relatively shallow waters. As the title aptly proves that adage with terrifying uncertainty.

Nancy (Blake Lively) has taken a vacation from medical school to revisit a beach in Mexico which holds a deeply personal meaning to her. That time she was there was while her mother was pregnant with her. She grew up listening to how the stretch of beach was beautifully idyllic. Nancy had become a reasonably proficient surfer, but the wave found near Galveston were nothing compared to the crests found here. A running plot point here is nobody will tell her the name of the beach. Upon her arrival, she encounters a pair of local boys surfing. One is wearing a helmet-mounted video camera for a few action selfies. Presenting shots of surfers riding gracefully atop mountainous waves of water have been commonplace for decades, but this film offered a perspective I have never seen. When faced with a large wave Nancy didn’t want to catch she gracefully dove beneath it. I sure this is a maneuver many surfers routinely perform but watching it here was a simple moment of beauty preceding what we know would be horrific. This scene began a process critical to the success of any psychological thriller; building empathy with the protagonist.

Our initial introduction to Nancy she comes off as a typical American tourist practically boasting of not knowing the language. This exchange was used to help expedite the backstory. Defining Nancy as a relatable person is achieved with a video call to her younger sister, Chloe (Sedona Legge). When her father (Brett Cullen), gets on it is revealed that Nancy considered dropping out of medical school after mother’s death. By this point, it is late afternoon, but Nancy wants to ride one more wave before heading back to her hotel. While riding the wave, she notices the carcass of a humpback whale she then encounters the cause of death, an extremely large great white shark.It rams her board turning swiftly to bite her leg. Nancy manages to haul herself up onto the dead whale. The shark attacks from beneath sending Nancy into the water. Frantically she reaches an outcropping of rocks to tend to her injury. Nancy suppresses her panic by detaching herself treating the wound as a patient describing the extent of damage and course of action with clinical precision. Nancy is resourceful using an earring as a needle and her gold chain as a thread to suture the gaping bite. There is another purpose of her reaction. It allows the audience to see a side of this young woman that dispels any misconceptions concerning a beautiful blonde. Nancy draws strength from knowing the last time she was on that beach was with her mother, in utero.

It is difficult for any movie to completely depart from the standard archetypes and tropes of any particular genre. In a situation where the only goal is overcoming impossible adversity and survive. If the tension inherent in the situation escalates unabated, the audience can become emotionally overwhelmed. By handling these circumstances in such a fashion, the attachment felt by the audience is significantly reinforces strengthening our understanding of Nancy’s plight. She sees a drunken man awaken on the beach but instead of calling for help he steals her cash and phone. After noticing a surfboard in the shallow water, he waves in to steal it. The shark appears and we have the first casualty. The impact is man blunted to some degree since he was a disreputable character but it does graphically demonstrate the fate Nancy faces. The strength of this movie that places it above others i=of this ilk is how the filmmaker achieves a substantial feeling of symmetry balancing the horror with uplifting nuances. The most significant of these has Nancy helping a seagull with a dislocated wing. Her medical training helps again, and she fixes it. The bird remains close to Nancy as a sort of symbol that hope remains.

The two boys return and are quickly dispatched by the shark, but Nancy does grab the camera. The director uses this as a realistic opportunity to allow the audience to glimpse inside Nancy’s deepest emotional core as she prepares a recording for her sister and father. The filmmaker seizes the opportunity to utilize a modern contrivance, the complete proliferation of self-documentation, making into an important aspect of telling the story. After all the entire point of any film is to tell a story making it as compelling to the viewer as possible. This film was a pleasant surprise as to its effectiveness and ingenuity it presented. My initial reaction, admittedly based primarily on the cover art, was just another Jaws pretender give an excuse for a beautiful, well-built, young woman in a scanty bikini running from a humongous hungry shark. I was barely 15 minutes into the movie when I realized I was incorrect in my hasty prejudgment. The story was crafted by a writer and director that realize what is necessary to create a piece of entertainment with a degree of substance. Which is not to say the film is full of deeper meaning but rather it does offer insight into the motivation of the predator and prospective prey. The shark is driven by its ingrained biological imperative to eat. Reducing Nancy to a state referred as blood simple, where killing is all that matters. She retains her resourcefulness, but there is a point crossed that escape predicated on the death of her adversary is the only option. Do not judge this film by its cover; it’s worthwhile.

Posted 09/25/2016

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