Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast: Blake Lively, Óscar Jaenada, Angelo Josue Lozano Corzo
Spoilers Within: Yes
To put it bluntly, I’ve never been a fan of the ocean. Tapping into my most primal fears of the unknown, the ocean’s alien depths and hidden mysteries unnerve me more than the outer reaches of space or any number of knowable horrors on land. I can pinpoint a specific era in my timeline where this distrust of extensive bodies of water first surfaced: I was a youngster of about 3- or 4-years-old living in Cyprus, unable to swim without assistance. On Button Beach (or so I recall) I took a piggy-back ride from my dad in order to reach a distant series of rock-caves, but at some point, my weight started to wear him out causing him to plant me on a jagged rock covered in horribly slimy monsters, now known as algae and seaweed. Because of this, and many other occasions where I felt a lack of control amongst the waves, any film relating to the ocean or being trapped therein contains a heightened level of suspense by default. Being lost-at-sea is my buried alive or home-invasion (though given the choice, I’d rather not experience any of them).
Starting in media res, Jaume Collet-Sera’s The Shallows teases the kind of visceral shocks to come in a smartly edited opening sequence, followed-up by a winningly charming car seat conversation between Blake Lively’s Nancy and Óscar Jaenada’s affable Carlos. It’s a warm opening that smartly avoids the route of sexual chemistry or lusty glances that could have materialised, and this path is taken throughout the film when Nancy comes across two like-minded surfers without boring scenes of flirtatiousness. Granted, the male surfers are evidently attracted to Nancy, but there’s little male gaze from their perspective. They’re all surfers, and though they initially try to broaden their group, Nancy just wants to surf, and they’re okay with that. The only ostensible love story is between Nancy, the ocean, and her family (and maybe her new feathered friend, Steven Seagull).
Without a great central performance, The Shallows would have definitely suffered, so it’s of great merit that Nancy is fleshed out in moments of observant, explicit introspection, and phone calls with her adoring younger sister and worrying father. When the shark hits the fan, it’s up to an isolated Nancy to carry the high concept to its exciting resolve, and due to a sufficiently expository script that’s sometimes overbearing, sometimes adequate, we get a decent sense of who she was before the attack, and what kind of person it turns her into.
Collet-Sera, who hasn’t exactly impressed with his body of work up until this point, does a fine job of staging the horrors of being stranded on a rock with a tenacious, circling shark, wringing sweaty suspense out of multiple fake-outs and tragedies without it becoming stale. Part of this is the aforementioned character building from Lively and the evasion of tedious bro-chat from the male surfers, meaning that when the carnage ensues, these scenes have more gravity than a simply teased technique of starting with the middle. Doubling down on this tension is the fantastic, potentially career-defining mid-range shot of Nancy’s terrified expression as she witnesses a grisly attack: Collet-Sera choosing to deliver the horror through her demeanour rather than the cheap shocks of the attack. It’s a great scene that entirely makes up for any shortcomings or paper-thin characterisations of the supplementary cast.
The secondary character – the ocean – is home to a third, the dominating, aggressive shark. There’s a tried-and-true method here that Collet-Sera uses to increase the fear and unease of seeing its fin pierce the calmness of the surfacewater: scarcely showing it in full, save for a headshot here, or a tailfin there, until the time is right to display the great-white in all its furious splendour. By the time Nancy’s resourceful survival reaches its destined conclusion, adrenaline reaches a level of catharsis that’s wholly deserved. There are a few brief moments of disbelief near the beginning that feel at odds with the attempts to ground it with a semi-serious tone, but once the film finds its flow it becomes a palpably exciting and quiet rumination on loss and trauma that’s anything but shallow.