Expecting another mediocre thriller about scary monsters in the deep, I was surprised by The Shallows, Sony’s summer shark movie with Blake Lively (Green Lantern). Horror is not my genre, as readers know. I probably haven’t seen a shark movie since whatever lame sequel to Jaws was on TV. Something about The Shallows caught my attention.
It might have been nostalgia for Jaws, which, after seeing gruesome daily news feeds, is less shocking in an age of nonstop Islamic terrorism, a toddler dragged by a reptile into a lagoon and endlessly brutal tales of housebound sex slaves. It turns out that The Shallows is gruesome, too, though at least its sense of purpose keeps the shark bite marks, gashes and wounds on point. The ads made it strike me as a movie that might have paid homage to the nameless woman plunged into the water at the beginning of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws.
From the sound of lapping water to the sound of thrashing in the water, The Shallows, contrary to its horror-oriented title, is single-minded about depicting the lone woman (Lively) against the shark. Barcelona native Jaume Collet-Serra directs the movie with a range of diversionary tactics—loud electronic dance music, imagery to project use of modern technology, the looming male as potential predator—and his visual style is scattered and inconsistent, sometimes to incoherence. Despite this, The Shallows is an engaging horror thriller. Gaps between action heighten the tension. For her part, San Fernando Valley native Lively carries the lead, instilling instant appeal with her easygoing Southern Californian manner. As a local drives her to her exotic destination, Lively’s surfer/medical school student Nancy flips through her phone’s photo gallery while riding to a remote Mexican beach where her late mother took her as a child. She sets her terms, invokes memories and chooses direction.
Clearly, she has an active mind. When the Spanish-speaking driver, named Carlos, translates her use of the term ‘reliable’ to describe herself—a best friend has a hangover back at the hotel, leaving Nancy to venture to the beach alone—as “bossy”, she laughs it off, then thinks twice and accepts ‘bossy’ as a badge. This is a woman at ease among men and at ease with herself. Nancy is also at ease in the water, where she encounters two local surfers, letting them know that she prefers to be alone. Pulling on gear over her tattooed, toned body, she might be bossy but she exudes self-confidence. Nancy knows how to put others at ease, too.
With waves forming and cresting in slow motion, The Shallows begins its dance with death. Rather than use a soundtrack or the fin, The Shallows lets the audience wonder where the shark will strike. Its style is disjointed, with quick cuts and little time to linger or build tension. I leave it to shark experts to judge the film’s realism for how a shark responds and pursues prey. A medical student’s insistence on going it alone on a secluded beach in a Third World country is hard to take. So is her inability to speak Spanish—any Spanish, though she manages a gracias. Nancy’s strained conversation with her father, who’s been handed the phone by Nancy’s sister without Nancy’s consent, leads the sharp American from Galveston, Texas, to make a serious mistake.
Having returned to shore as the two men depart the beach, still angry with her dad, Nancy goes out again. She thinks she’s alone. Porpoising suggests otherwise but still she swims and surfs. I’ll leave it that things turn crimson after she spots a dying whale. The contest between man and nature—in this case, woman versus shark-infested waters—is on.
Nancy, however, goes by reason; she calculates time and distance, she engages in positive self-talk, she nurses a wounded bird, and she thinks with one goal in mind: to escape the shark, which won’t be a cinch (you might want to skip seeing The Shallows if you’re queasy about self-surgery). As Nancy’s battle against what appears to be a great white shark reaches horror movie cliche proportions, and it does, I started to wonder if this display would end up as grisly as watching James Franco cut off his limb in 127 Hours. Thankfully, it is not as grim, though The Shallows, for its stunning photography, is quite bloody.
“I can make that”, Nancy tells herself at one point, inspired by her late mother’s example. After striking an Olympian’s pose on a jagged rock, whether she can and will propels this cautionary teaser-thriller about the surfer who surfs alone to become the doctor who heals herself.