Until I watched The Shallows I guess deep down I didn’t think we had another good shark film in the tank (yuk yuk). I mean we really lucked out with Jaws: a horror-drama rather than true eco-horror, well-paced with perfect humor and chemistry. We’ve had a few other entries that were decent. Open Water – a survival thriller – was a compelling viewing but it also wasn’t really a shark film per se, and it was also just too damned depressing. But The Shallows is deeply satisfying in most every way, a shark classic for this age, and one of the rare films I’ll likely watch again. Director Jaume Collet-Serra and writer Anthony Jaswinski put their horror background to good use, but this is far better than jump scares or gore. The gorgeous location and cinematography, several clever plot devices, and a rather touching survival story carried by a stellar actor make for exemplary entertainment.
In the film’s opening a young boy finds evidence of a savage attack, as he plays along deserted coastline under cloud cover. We flash back a few sunny mornings before as surfer Nancy (Blake Lively) is mounting an expedition to an unnamed beach in Mexico. Leaving her hungover travel companion behind at the hotel, she hitches a ride with the sweet Carlos (Óscar Jaenada) to a secluded cove for some surfing. Nancy’s mother has recently succumbed to cancer, and Nancy has fled medical school to nurse her grief and catch some waves in this paradisiacal locale.
Carlos drops Nancy off and she prepares for a day surfing, after calling her worried father and younger sister back home. The beach is gorgeous and remote, although not entirely isolated; Nancy runs across two surfing locals who make contact with her as she paddles to meet the break. After spending a few hours in the breaks she paddles further out and finds a whale carcass; before she can return to shore she is bumped then severely bitten by a large great white. Swimming for her life she ends up stranded on a small rocky outcrop hundreds of meters from shore with the large fish stalking her. Gravely injured and with no means of contacting help, she is suddenly at risk of perishing from blood loss, infection, exposure – or the McRib Chomp of a peckish carcharodon carcharias.
The Shallows is more clever, heartfelt, and thrilling a film than most of us deserve. Lively is impressive (more in a minute), and the flim is so beautifully made it’s a thrill to watch. It takes its time letting us meet the shark, and isn’t too quick to show us lots of the shark. I was in suspenseful agonies most of the run time.
There are liabilities, as there so often with horror films and as there always is when it comes to eco-horror specifically. First, while sharks definitely have the capacity to destroy human beings and can leap out of the water, it is not likely a shark would so relentlessly pursue a human (let alone three more) with such intense focus. There are a few goofy bits that succumb to shark-as-slasher film: the shark chomping on the metal of a bouy, a jellyfish gauntlet, and Nancy’s handy med-student knowledge (which apparently extends to birds and sharks). But come on. Remember what kind of film we’re watching, here!
There are also moments that are just wonderful: the condescending machismo of the male surfers, not trusting Nancy to know how to surf nor heeding her warnings as they later mount a rescue. The relationship Nancy forms with a stranded injured seagull – a real bird and a great actor! – is well done while not succumbing to sentimentality. And Nancy herself is relatable, down-to-earth, and strong – while not being superhuman. In today’s horror thrillers you know the film could go either way: she could survive and go on to be stronger after the ordeal – or she could meet a grisly end. By the third act of the film I was fairly confident where we were headed.
And finally, Lively can’t be praised enough for keeping us absolutely enthralled with her plight. I suspect a lot of male viewers wanted to see her half-naked and helpless – and she’s anything but that tired-ass trope. The Shallows was a perfect thriller and while I wasn’t about to watch this in the theater, it made for great home viewing where I could plug my ears and close my eyes here or there. I look forward to watching it again, able to relax a bit more now that I know when ol’ Sharky’s going to show up.