Blake Lively vs. A Shark Makes 'The Shallows' The Perfect Summer Thrill Ride
It's a cliché, but during a summer in which blockbusters feature two dozen characters, multiple demolished cities and three hour running times, a little minimalism becomes a welcome value. Consider The Shallows: Blake Lively gets marooned on a rock no more than 200 yards from shore. She's got a garish bite on her leg from a shark, who plans on circling her till the high tide comes in. Under 90 minutes later, the credits will already have rolled. Filled with simple visceral pleasures and an expressionistic palette, The Shallows is a textbook example of perfect summer filmmaking.
Part of that is due to its director, Jaume Collet-Serra, who has become something of a William Wellman for modern Hollywood by delivering small and effective genre pictures. Compared to the $250 million budget on this year's superheroes movies, The Shallows cost a paltry $17 million. While other action directors attempt to wow with mind-blowing aesthetics, Collet-Serra has made films the old fashioned way: precise camera shots and edits with nothing too flashy. Character always comes first. Whether it's Vera Farmiga's increasing suspicions of her evil adopted child in Orphan, or Liam Neeson fighting for his life in Unknown and Non-Stop, Collet-Serra combines high-contrast visuals with sparse staging and emotive performances.
Lively is perhaps not the first actress that pops to mind when one thinks of building a film around a singular performance, but the former Gossip Girl star does well with her muttering and screams as she searches for a way to survive. The film briefly sets up former medical student Nancy, who has traveled to the small Mexico beach her mother once visited and now plans on surfing the perfect waves. It's all paradise until, in one expertly placed close-up, Lively is pulled under the water. The deep blue frame slowly turns into a blood red before Nancy desperately makes it onto the tiny rock. Nancy has less than 24 hours before high tide submerges her back into the shark's feeding ground.
Best described as Jaws meets MacGyver, the script by Anthony Jaswinski finds little items and details for Lively's Nancy to use to buy herself time. Collet-Serra sticks to a number of medium shots and close-ups to keep up the urgency, relying on POV shots to throw the audience into her headspace and the occasional extreme long shot of her tiny rock within the vast space to create isolating terror. After the initial set-up, the film plays much of its length without much dialogue and no music to express the intensity of the situation at hand. More often than not, The Shallows prefers abstract tension, as Nancy sees the other few unexpecting victims simply disappear under the water without warning (and, and in one Spielbergian close-up, creates all the horror of a gruesome death via reaction shot).
After shooting his first six features on 35mm, Collet-Serra (along with DP Flavio Labiano) have made the switch to digital, which opens up the visual palette to a playful mix of blues and reds. The pixilated water shines with intense lucidity during the early surfing sequences, while the play between the dripping blood flowing in the water creates a mix of intense hues that always remind us of the tension. The changes in sunlight through night and clouds create different refractions of light to capture textures of Lively's bruised, chaffed, and broken skin with striking realism. The Shallows relies on a constant tactile nature of the water splashing up on the surface, an amusing dance of red light for the film's best joke, and a truly sublime glow of silver jellyfish appearing during a tense moment.
While Collet-Serra does the best to make this a particularly plotted affair, the unfortunate Hollywood screenwriting beats do find their way to interrupt the otherwise fluid momentum. A subplot about Nancy's abandonment of medical school and her anxieties over her mother's death are only made interesting due to a strange CGI triple-FaceTime shot, and final big monologue to a GoPro cam perhaps puts too much weight for the actress to sell (though the use of an intense close-up is surprisingly effective). While Collet-Serra's other films have contained just enough gravitas within their performers to make these character-based moments work, something about the odd insertions of character here feels unwelcome (no more than in the film's all too tidy coda).
These moments thankfully amount to just a sliver in what is otherwise an adrenaline rush from start to finish. Even the climactic setpiece on a buoy, which may overload itself with a bit too much CGI, carries a sense of tactility as both Lively and the camera bounce in and out of the water with increasing tension, and the constant physics adds needed weight. Plus, the film derives constant humor from an unexpected sidekick, the broken-winged Sully "Steven" Seagull (if justice is done, the bird should win Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars next year). The Shallows is the kind of summer film we should want more of: it promises very little, and then delivers unexpected pleasures bubbling under its surface.
The Shallows opens everywhere on Friday.
Peter Labuza is a freelance film critic, whose work has appeared in Variety, Sight & Sound, and The A.V. Club. Follow him on Twitter.