Overview: Medical student Nancy (Blake Lively) goes surfing and, after a shark attack, is trapped on a tiny island rock 200 yards from the shore. Columbia Pictures; 2016; PG-13; 87 Minutes.
Still Not Safe To Go In The Water: No one helps Nancy. From start to finish, no one but Nancy contributes to Nancy’s success or failure. This is important to note. The Shallows presents one person’s survival story, a medical student mourning the loss of her mother by surfing at a secret beach she remembers from her childhood stories. Once Nancy is initially attacked and marooned, the film assigns to her a sort of hyper-agency, a dire situation in which only her perceptions and decisions matter. Other characters wander onto her tropical stage, but are quickly removed in a manner that forces her to own her circumstance. Or not. Nancy’s control of the narrative starts every second with her deciding whether she even wants to survive. This absolute empowerment elevates our hero so that every obstacle and all of her suffering becomes her burden rather than our entertainment.
There is only one great shark movie, and after that, mostly just a bunch of bad shark movies borrowing from the work put in by Spielberg’s 1975 classic Jaws. Before The Shallows, post-Jaws shark films, including the Jaws sequels, were intent on tossing hapless and/or helpless swimmers into the water and stimulating the audience’s Jaws-conditioned uneasiness toward the killing capability of large sharks. But to call The Shallows the best shark film since Jaws, a claim that many will certainly make this weekend, is to measure against a bar too low to offer any insight into the adjusted terms by which The Shallows does succeed. What we probably remember most from Jaws is the underwater first-shark perspective as the great white attacked his victims from below the surface. The Shallows leans on this same technique a couple of times, but only as a means of unnerving deception. The threat of the shark, here, is measured by the framing of distance around Nancy, her underwater sensory limitations, and her camera-drawn discombobulation. Every attempt by the shark to attack Nancy is presented with Nancy as the cinematic anchor. Unlike Jaws and all of its countless emulators, The Shallows isn’t a monster movie in a functional sense. It’s a survival film, with the shark being demoted from monster to circumstantial obstacle, and somehow, that makes the shark’s presence, finally, threatening in more ways than just through surprise attacks.
Who Even Needs a Boat?: In promotion of the film, Lively, who performed some of her own stunts, has spoken toward the hardship of making a movie in which “there wasn’t a single scene that wasn’t stunt heavy.” The demands of filming seem to add upon her powerful physical performance, influencing both the character’s exhaustion and her athletic strength. Lively stands at a long 5’10” and each inch of her physique– from her strong shoulders to her lean calves, from her L.A. face to her reportedly Oakland booty– is employed in telling the story of Nancy’s desperation (with, I might add, a refreshingly minimal amount of sexualization). One high-angle shot in particular, immediately one of my favorite frames of the year, captures Nancy laying sideways atop the island rock, her waist bent at an uncomfortable angle and her limbs reaching outward in different directions like the tortured subject of a screen-captured Romantic art piece.
Lively’s physical expressiveness and Flavio Martínez Labiano’s framing of it is both the film’s and the actress’ best storytelling tool, and it works so well that it highlights the moments in which Anthony Jaswinsk’s script slips into overextending dialogue. When Nancy uses her phone to speak to her father and a helmet cam to leave an emotional message (with the devices serving as a clever reminder that all of humanity’s technological progress has only made us better at living in human spaces), the conversation moves too far into dialogue that’s a bit too on-the-nose in pursuit of what has already been communicated with whispered monologues and a symbolic necklace.
Anyway, He Almost Delivered the Bomb: But even this criticism feels a bit unfair to leverage against what is essentially a low-budget blockbuster. With an estimated budget of 17 million dollars, The Shallows engages its audience better than 2016 films produced with ten to fifteen times the budget, and it accomplishes this with simplistic and disciplined cinematic approach. As was the case with his perhaps under-appreciated airliner thriller Non-Stop, Director Jaume Collet-Sera gives us a straightforward film in a limited space with familiar markers. Aside from Lively’s performance, the director tells his whose story with just a few visual elements: a buoy, a bit of rock, a lot of crisp water, the water’s surface, its shoreline, a charming little seagull, and a camera that knows how to keep the narrative rhythm balanced between them. Really, The Shallows is a 90 minute film about a game of tag with two participants and two safe bases, and yet it’s likely to be the most exciting film of the summer.
Overall: Though Jaume Collet-Serra isn’t as precise in establishing his character’s psychological and emotional stakes as he is with her physical and symbolic ones, The Shallows is still an unexpected pulse-pounding thrill ride.
Featured Image: Columbia Pictures