The Shallows

The Shallows (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

Shark flick “The Shallows,” written by Anthony Jaswinski and directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, is saddled with an eye-rolling backstory involving a medical student named Nancy (Blake Lively) who is considering to drop out of medical school due to her mother having recently died from cancer. Despite this limitation, it remains a solid creature feature because the filmmakers understand how to build tension and release it at the right moments.

The audience is provided a clear mental map of the situation. The shore is about two hundred yards from the rock that Nancy uses as refuge after an initial heart-pounding shark attack. There is a floating whale carcass about thirty yards away from the rock. There is also a nearby buoy. We learn when high and low tides begin and end. Nancy has the acuity to take note how fast the hunter swims from one location to the next. The more information given to us, the stronger our engagement with the picture. Along with Nancy, we try to figure out the best possible solution, like trying to solve a complex math problem.

The film starts out like a summer music video: energetic, colorful, our heroine’s sun-kissed beach-ready body front and center. Slow motion is employed just in case we do not already get the point. We appreciate the beauty of the warm sand, the alluring embrace of the ocean, and how tropical trees sway just so along the breeze. It is appropriate, even fitting, given the sudden shift in tone waiting about twenty minutes in. As real in life, terror strikes when least expected. It adds horror to the entire experience.

Lively is a surprise to me because in just about every scene she proves she is a true performer. Prior to this film, I thought she was pretty but certainly more of a television actress than someone who belongs in feature films. I was very happy to have been proven wrong. Even happier to learn that she can spearhead a movie—a horror movie, no less, which requires a specific skill set to hold together.

Take note of the moments when her character’s body is harmed in some way. Lively has a way of limiting her character’s movements in the forthcoming scenes to the point where it becomes almost claustrophobic to watch Nancy. Every sudden movement looks painful, each ounce of energy sacrificed in order to outsmart a fearsome predator. Lesser actors might have simply relied on their physical attributes to get by. Here, Lively makes the choice to actively and consistently engage with the character and so we relate with the protagonist every step of the way. She even finds a convincing way to relate with a co-star… that just so happens to be a bird.

Horror films usually have a difficult time delivering an ending that feels exactly right for the story being told. The reason is because the writers feel the need to console the viewers more than once that the character will be all right. “The Shallows” is no exception. It should have had one less scene because the penultimate scene’s final line communicated everything that needed to be expressed.

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