Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast: Blake Lively, Óscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge
MPAA Rating: (for bloody images, intense sequences of peril, and brief strong language)
Running Time: 1:27
Release Date: 6/24/16
Review by Mark Dujsik | June 23, 2016
You can count the essential plot elements of The Shallows on one hand: a woman, a shark, a whale, a rock, and a buoy. For a while, only the first three really matter, and we might as well toss the tide on to the list, too, because, without it, there's no reason to include the buoy. Even then, though, this is about as minimalist a plot for a thriller as minimalist setups for thrillers can get.
The screenplay by Anthony Jaswinski doesn't waste time getting to the conflict (especially when one considers that, thanks to a prologue that's set at a later point in the story, the shark's first appearance is within the first few minutes of the film). It doesn't expend any unnecessary effort in devising complications that don't involve those primary elements. There are characters other than the woman, although they exist to get her to the location where the story unfolds, to provide the loosest background information on the protagonist, and, naturally, to show off the danger of the shark—just in case her first encounter with it isn't enough to solidify that fact.
Otherwise, the film is entirely concerned with the primal conflict between this woman and nature—the shark, the pounding heat of day, the freezing cold of night, the isolation of a place that doesn't appear on any map, coral that cuts like a knife, a storm in the distance, the tide that promises to cover the only definitive safety she has in water. Even with these restrictions, there's plenty with which the script plays.
The woman is Nancy (Blake Lively), a medical student who is in the middle of an impromptu vacation following her mother's death from cancer. She has become jaded with the world and the profession she had hoped to begin. Fighting, she tells her worried father (Brett Cullen) via video chat, doesn't really matter, because, in the end, the result is the same.
Nancy has arrived at a secret beach somewhere in Mexico to do some surfing—a place where her mother visited after discovering she was pregnant with Nancy. A local man (Óscar Jaenada) drives her there, jokingly refusing to tell her the name of the beach. Nancy's friend, with whom she went on vacation, sends her a text saying she won't be able to make it.
A couple of guys are already there, enjoying the waves. She joins them for a while. As they start to pack up their jeep to leave, she heads out a bit father into the water, looking for one last wave. While swimming that way, she spots a strange mass in the water with seagulls circling around it. It's a wounded whale with a large chunk of flesh ripped from it. The shark that's feeding on it doesn't appreciate the unwelcome company.
At this point, what's important is that Nancy is alone (save for a scene-stealing wounded seagull that serves as an uncaring confidant for her plans). Her only possibilities for help have already left, are out of earshot on the beach, or are a phone call away when her phone is completely out of reach. Director Jaume Collet-Serra and cinematographer Flavio Martínez Labiano ensure that we have firm grounding on distances and, in the case of the rock upon which she finds herself stranded, the limited space available to Nancy to move. The camera ducks under the water along with her frantic attempts to reach safety, travels across the seafloor as the current violently pulls her into rocks and coral, and hovers straight up in the air—looking down upon the massive silhouette of a beast that is about three times as long as Nancy is tall and about two-and-a-half times as wide as her frame.
We get considerable looks at the shark, which is, admittedly, more convincing in its shorter, less clear moments. The visual effects are serviceable, although they suffer more during the climax, which might have a bit too much going on at once (It involves a storm, fire, and a lot of underwater action).
By that point, though, it doesn't really matter. The shark remains a terrifying threat because Collet-Serra uses plenty of tricks in terms of editing and timing (Nancy's use of stopwatch to figure out how much time she has to swim from one spot to another is especially ingenious, particularly in the way she doesn't take into account that the shark might move faster with a potential meal in the water). Jaswinski's screenplay keeps the shark's appearances to an effective minimum, too, which heightens their impact (One attack on an unaware visitor to the beach is presented through the look of horror on Nancy's face). There's a lot of tension in the way Nancy must tend to her physical (suturing a sizeable gash with only her earrings) and psychological states, and the slowly approaching high tide makes for a logical ticking clock.
Lively's performance is key, and she gives Nancy plenty of fight underneath her weariness and clever resourcefulness under pressure (It's a credit to Jaswinski's screenplay that we're never entirely certain about the specifics of some of Nancy's plans and to Lively that we're confident the character has a good one, nonetheless). These three elements—the sympathetic central performance, the tight screenplay, the clear-eyed direction—make The Shallows a solid reminder that, while it might not always be more, sometimes less is just right.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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