Just when sharks thought that it was safe to come back out the water, another film comes along which paints them as snarling, bloodthirsty murderers. Despite the bad PR (you’re more likely to be killed by a vending machine than a shark), it is actually rather refreshing to see a ‘straight’ shark movie opening in cinemas, instead of one about mutant-ghost-terrorist monsters clinging to the underside of your local DVD bargain bin.
Eschewing the trend for obese run-times, multiple plots and genetically-enhanced characters pushing each other around in exotic locations, ‘The Shallows’ proves to be welcome return to a taut, tidy thriller, and may well prove to be the sleeper hit of the summer. Blake Lively play Nancy, a former medical student who dropped out of school after her mother’s death to cancer, who is exploring herself (and Mexico) by chilling out at her mother’s favourite secret beach. So far, so B-movie, and certainly the film’s title has an unfortunate double meaning here. Nancy’s backstory is clumsily dealt with through looking at past Instagram posts and a FaceTime chat with her sister and father, and certainly Nancy’s motives have the emotional depth of Barbie Saviour.
All this might leave the film sunken without a trace in its opening act if it wasn’t so beautifully shot by Spanish filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra, who makes use of some stunning aerial shots of the secluded beach as well as some calming underwater footage and energetic GoPro films. The director also does well to create a sense of fun before the devilish fish makes his first appearance, choosing an extended sequence in which we see Nancy (as well as two Mexican hunks) catching waves and generally being gnarly, whatever that means. The sense of foreboding is continued through some false alarms as well as some excellent sound design. While ‘Trouble’ by Neon Jungle (remember them?) inexplicably booms through the surfing scene, it is the raw sound of the threatening waves, sand against a board, or the crunch of an apple which last longest in the memory.
Of course, as soon as Nancy tells the sexy Mexicans that she’s going to stay out a while, it is clear that a bite is beckoning. Collet-Serra floods the picture here with horror: Nancy is dragged under; the water around her turns from paradise blue to wine red, and the film becomes a tale of survival akin to ‘127 Hours’ or even Robert Redford’s quieter ‘All Is Lost’. There is much to be applauded in this chunk of ‘The Shallows’, not least the brave decision to keep the action in one location instead of flitting back and forth to minor characters. Elsewhere, it’s pleasing to see that Nancy is as resourceful as a Swiss Army Knife and not just a whining Texan in a tiny bikini. Sure, there are some shots where, like the shark, we are forced to see Nancy as a piece of meat, but after the attack she is courageous and full of initiative: a surf board leash becomes a tourniquet; earrings become stitches; a wet-suit becomes a bandage.
None of this would work were it not for a superb performance from Blake Lively, who is at times the bumbling, tech-obsessed ‘Murican, then the terrified, wounded mermaid and ultimately an Amazonian war goddess. It helps, too, that Collet-Serra is not afraid to beat her up a bit. Close-ups of Nancy’s dried lips and pallid face truly convey her exhaustion, while some of the film’s most anus-clenching moments come when the surfer scrapes her foot on some coral or bashes her teeth against a rock. Surprisingly, as the terror increases, there is still time for moments of wit, largely thanks to a subtle and nuanced performance from Steven, a seagull. With his wounded wing and hopeless situation, he evidently acts as a counterpart to Nancy, echoing her silent pain and resignation to despair. Plus, he’s super cute. Avian Wilsons aside, as the film develops, even the most snooty critic could not help but whisper an anxious ‘oh, fucking hell’ as Nancy finds herself in greater and greater danger without any indication that she will escape this unnaturally vengeful shark, who relentlessly pursues a bony blondie after chowing down on three locals and an entire whale.
Ignoring the shark-logic, the film concludes the tension with a superb Fit vs Fin stand-off atop a rickety buoy, full of tearing metal and aggressive chomping. While one might argue that we see too much of the shark in this final section, it should be praised that even to the end it is not clear how Nancy will succeed, as we are never fully privy to her plans. It is a shame, therefore, that ultimately Collet-Serra appears to have given in to the pressure of studio executives and test-screenings, with a horribly upbeat and unnecessary denouement which force-feeds a hack message of determination, deflating the film like a lilo in the mouth of a great white. Still the bait of Blake and brutality is too good not to bite – what ‘The Shallows’ lacks in depth, it more than makes up for in the beautiful kind of simple, thrilling film-making not often seen on our shores.