The Shallows is a survival story of the highest order. Intense and expressive, it deserves mention in the same category as The Grey, Life of Pi, The Revenant, 127 Hours, or certain Jack London stories. It’s a woman versus nature thriller stripped of all but the most necessary components, wasting no time in setting up her terrifying predicament while supplying the exact right amount of character development to help us understand her skill set and her mental state. It’s lean, visceral, and convincing, introducing us to a young woman (Blake Lively) taking a break from med school to go surfing at a remote Mexican beach. Soon tragedy strikes, leaving her stranded 200 yards from shore, clinging to a rock for dear life. A large shark has attacked, leaving one of her legs ripped and punctured, bleeding and infected. The animal’s ominous fin continues to circle between her and the beach as night falls and no one is around to help. It’s a crisis shot through with a palpable sense of weary helplessness. How could she possibly get out of this?
Running a trim 87 minutes, this is a spare, minimalist, and artful mainstream thriller of uncommon focus and intensity. Every second is there for a reason, from early sunny nature photography and surfing stunts that paint a portrait of an idealized getaway, to the sudden cloud of dark red blood in the water as the shark attacks, to the methodical approach Anthony Jaswinski’s screenplay takes to playing fair with the setup and payoff. There’s nothing here to strain credulity overmuch; it simply takes in a smart, capable person’s one-step-at-a-time drive to problem solve and stay alive. It becomes a struggle of wits and persistence. As the woman tries to stop her bleeding and take stock of her surroundings and the shark lurks, often unseen, it’s a tossup as to which being will outlast the other. The film plays out in mostly wordless passages of tense close-ups and medium shots, piecing together its protagonist’s mental process in intuitive edits helped along by occasional moments where she’s muttering or talking to herself. When the camera cuts back wide and long, emphasizing her isolation, it’s abundantly clear how alone she is, and how necessary her self-reliance becomes.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra, one of our finest B-movie practitioners, excels at these expertly contained genre exercises, from wax museum slasher House of Wax to airplane-set thriller Non-Stop. With The Shallows he meticulously creates a relatively small natural space defined by obvious and memorable landmarks clearly and consistently positioned. She’s stuck on a rock, high tide and low tide bringing certain death near and far on a predictable – but hardly comforting – ebb and flow. Collet-Serra’s frequent cinematographer Flavio Martinez Labiano frames the action to always triangulate the geography. There’s the beach, the open ocean, a rock, a buoy, a whale carcass. Every image carries the facts and weight of her situation and location, and how little she has to work with. We know how far she must swim to reach safety, and can see the slowly dawning trial-and-error strategy she deploys to think her way to safety. It helps the movie has so effortlessly and off-handedly introduced her skills. She’s an expert surfer, and therefore knows her way around the water. She’s a world-traveler, and thus able to adapt to foreign situations. She’s a med student, and so naturally can rip a makeshift tourniquet off a sleeve and assess the damage of a bruising and potentially gangrenous leg.
As soon as there’s blood in the water it’s a film of tension, released only in quiet foreboding and contemplation of existential panic. In widescreen framing simmering with a John Carpenter approach to eerie classical discomfort and convincing, restrained effects work, Collet-Serra allows shadows and waves to hide and reveal sources of danger. These, and shots straight out of Jaws staring up at bodies and boards in motion from deep below the water, form a patient escalation as her situation becomes more and more desperate. In one particularly upsetting moment of violence – as a potential source of rescue is devoured – the camera holds on Lively’s face, her reaction the clue to the gore that’s later merely glimpsed. The film is so precise, building thrills bit by bit, emphasizing key details through effective focus pulls, simple shot/reverse shot, and in confident shifts of perspective. Use of a GoPro, for example, transcends potential found-footage wooziness or gimmickry to be an integral puzzle piece, and careful insert shots reveal the tools at her disposal with perfect casual deliberateness.
Because the film so easily brings the audience to an understanding of who and where this woman is, it has believably airtight plotting that allows her to arrive at decisions in understandable ways. This isn’t a thriller that’s ahead or behind its lead; she behaves exactly how you’d think a reasonably smart and prepared individual would when faced with such incredible and harrowing circumstances. Inhabiting these trying moments, Lively does career-best work in a performance of pain and despair, finally arriving at grim resolve. She’s not sure she’ll live. But she’ll fight as long as she can, the best that she can. Lively spends the film in a swimsuit, shivering on a rock, wincing in pain, screaming in agony, talking to herself and a seagull, shouting at distant figures, timing tides and the shark with her waterproof watch, and having one horrifying setback after the next. She holds the movie’s every frame with captivating everywoman appeal, pushing forward despite the odds with raw survival instinct.
Collet-Serra begins the film introducing elegantly simple and essential backstory by superimposing her phone’s screen in the corner over her arrival – perhaps the first movie to quietly, seamlessly integrate exposition via texts and Instagram. Through a quick FaceTime call we glimpse her father and younger sister, and surmise from her insistence on finding the same obscure and mostly pristine beach her mother did many years ago that she’s mourning a death. She’s contemplating dropping out of med school. She’s isolated from everyone she knows, at a loss as to what her life will become, dealing with grief. And so getting attacked by the shark and stuck in the shallows becomes a moving metaphor for depression. She’s close to safety, but for the toothy unstoppable natural force making saving herself a difficult prospect. It seems impossible, and yet she fights on, determined to reunite with her loved ones and return to solid ground. The simplicity of the film’s construction makes the subtext far more moving than a showier approach could manage, and maintains a gripping, exciting, and nerve-wracking focus on her plight.