[Note: This post contains minor spoilers.]
Efficient, effective thrillers like The Shallows don’t come along that often. A lean, mean, 104-minute dose of primeval tension and terror, the film is blessedly light on—although not completely free of—narrative flab. The opening fifteen minutes or so establish all that the viewer needs to know about heroine Nancy (Blake Lively), a Texas surfer and Baylor grad who has journeyed to Mexico for reasons that are both adventurous and sentimental. Wavering on whether or not to drop out of medical school, she is seeking a nameless cove where her recently deceased mother rode the waves many years ago, shortly after discovering she was pregnant. In true Ugly American fashion, she is embarrassingly open about this personal odyssey with Carlos (Óscar Jaenada), the amiable local driver who has agreed to convey her through the forest to this elusive beach.
Once they arrive at the cove, Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra allows the film to break free from the almost claustrophobic close-ups that dominate within cab of Carlos’ truck. The sumptuous, blindingly bright widescreen digital photography captures the beach in all its white and aquamarine glory, resembling nothing so much as pristine paradise found. (Except, of course, for the two male surfers who are already enjoying the waves and documenting their exploits with a helmet-mounted GoPro camera.) While The Shallows is not remotely a “surfing procedural,” Collet-Serra provides an inspired depiction of Nancy’s meticulous preparations in a series of quick cuts, giving landlocked viewers just enough detail to appreciate that she is no-nonsense and capable when it comes to her sport. Thereafter, the film indulges in a montage of luscious surfing footage, devoting as much attention to the hypnotic curl of the waves as it does to Lively’s lithe, leggy figure. While a tad shameless, this slick revelry in the light, color, and motion of the surfer’s experience handily conveys Nancy’s exhilaration, providing validation for her quest—and contrast with the horrors to come.
After taking a break to video chat with her father (Brett Cullen) and younger sister (Sedona Legge) to confirm that she is alive and well—and quarreling with Dad vis-à-vis her mother’s death and her own future—Nancy returns to the surf. The film’s tone unmistakably shifts at this point, leaving behind the sun-kissed elation of the earlier footage for something more ambiguous. The score switches into a distinctly ominous mode, and Collet-Serra slides in more gloomy underwater shots angled up towards the surface, where the silhouette of Nancy’s surfboard suddenly seems terribly small and exposed. As the day wears on and her two ad hoc companions are preparing to leave, Nancy elects to remain behind and catch a few more waves. While this fateful choice will seem foolhardy in hindsight, the nightmare that ultimately descends on Nancy is less attributable to poor judgment than to freak occurrences beyond her control. Most critically, the currents have recently carried a rotting humpback whale carcass into the cove, drawing predatory species that would not normally be encountered in the area.
What unfolds next is an ocean-phobe’s worst fear: An enormous great white shark rams Nancy’s surfboard and delivers a gruesome bite to her left leg. The attack, although brief, is easily the most visually arresting sequence in the film, owing particularly to two stupendous images. The first is a dazzling slow-motion shot of Nancy sliding into the tube of a breaking wave, just as the colossal shadow of the shark materializes within the wall of water to her right. In the second instance, underwater greens and blues erupt with dark blooms of blood as the maimed Nancy flails in terror, the entire frame eventually glowing an unnaturally deep red that would do Dario Argento proud. Despite her panic and pain, Nancy manages to claw her way onto the whale cadaver, giving her just enough of a respite from danger to turn her surf leash into a makeshift tourniquet, and then to comprehend the ugly reality of her situation.
This is where The Shallows truly begins to shine as a horror-tinted thriller: Nancy is effectively thrown into a fearsome, single-minded arms race not only with the hellishly determined shark, but with the implacable forces of the sun, cold, current, and tides. Similar to other top-shelf thrillers of recent vintage such as Buried, Gravity, and The Revenant, Collet-Serra’s film succeeds in large part due to the stark nature of its conflict. Nancy only has one goal: survive. Naturally, the conventions of mainstream narrative cinema stack the deck in favor of the film’s heroine. As a pretty white woman (and a Final Girl of sorts), Nancy is clearly going to live through her ordeal. However, the film is nonetheless able to evoke punishing tension from the moment-to-moment uncertainty of how exactly she will outmaneuver each new complication and mini-catastrophe. Her tactics rely on both her knowledge and pure happenstance to exploit every possible advantage within the confines of her desperate situation. Case in point: Her surgical training permits her to jerry-rig her barbed earrings into sutures for her mutilated leg, in a scene reminiscent of Hugh Glass’ cauterization of his torn throat in The Revenant.
Ordinarily, an oceanic survival tale would entail perils related to sea’s trackless expanse and abyssal depths. The brutal irony of The Shallows’ scenario is how constrained the physical location proves to be. Nancy’s entire world is suddenly defined by a triad of objects, all within 40 or so yards of each other: the whale carcass, a stationary buoy, and a nub of rock with barely enough space for her and an obdurate seagull. Moreover, she is trapped a scant 200 yards from shore, seemingly doomed to perish within sight of the beach she traveled so far to surf. Like an army in a castle under siege, her sanctuary from her enemy is also her prison. (In this, The Shallows resembles the third act of Jaws, although in Nancy’s case she never has any illusions that she is the hunter.) Collet-Serra employs the simplicity of his tale’s locale to fine effect, repeatedly emphasizing that Nancy’s fate hinges on cold, quantitative factors such as distance, duration, and velocity. She doesn’t have the luxury of time to wait out her prehistoric foe. Thirst, gangrene, and the tide demand that she act to save herself sooner rather than later. Underlining the point, the luminescent face of Nancy’s marine watch periodically appears on screen, marking not only the time, but also the minutes remaining until low and high tide.
This is just one of the digital bells and whistles with which the director embellishes his frame. Texts and videos on Nancy’s phone also announce themselves with on-screen pop-ups. While such animated flourishes are at times distracting, their purpose gradually becomes clear as the film unfolds. Ruthless momentum is crucial to the film’s potency, and while the action might occasionally downshift, Collet-Serra maintains a sense of ceaseless motion, reflecting the shark’s endless circling. (Seen from above, the creature’s silhouette becomes a second hand on a doomsday clock, counting out the remaining ticks of Nancy’s life.) Adding text messages and tidal countdowns as overlays prevents the need to cut awkwardly to close-up shots of gadgets, which would diminish the film’s energy. Not all of Collet-Serra’s choices are as judicious. The dollop of magical realism he adds to the film’s penultimate scene is likely meant to be touching, but it just induces eye-rolling. More egregiously, the film tends to treat its Mexican characters as featureless prey, or even outright stereotypes in the case of a thieving drunk (Diego Espejel) who declines to help Nancy and is relieved of a portion of his anatomy for his sins.
That said, The Shallows is essentially a one-woman show, and former Gossip Girl lead Lively acquits herself well. To be sure, Nancy is as thinly characterized as any horror protagonist, and the role doesn’t demand much of the performer in terms of emotional range or complexity. Certainly, Lively pulls off the tousled, sand-speckled bearing of a beach native, and also looks suitably alluring in a bikini—which is always going to be a prerequisite for a young female lead in a shark movie, one suspects. Indeed, The Shallows is fairly uninhibited about its male gaze, although the film’s gawking at Lively’s body often feels more aesthetic than sexual. However, it’s not the actress’ looks that are most salient to The Shallows’ success, but her ease with the role’s physicality and with its broad emotional beats. Far from distracting with her It Girl celebrity, Lively is credible as both an avid surfer and the sort of furtively tough woman who is accustomed to telling obsequious men that she’s just fine without their company, thank you. In short, Lively is convincing in a manner that permits her stardom to recede. The actress turns a paper doll heroine into someone likable and human: a confident athlete, a grieving daughter, and a terrified Everyperson in an hostile environment. Acting 101, perhaps, but it’s no small thing to be believable while also getting out of the way of the behind-the-camera talent—director Collet-Serra, of course, but also cinematographer Flavio Martinez Labiano and editor Joel Negron. Lively’s ability to nail exactly what The Shallows requires, no more and no less, is admirable.