Office Christmas Party
Another reminder that allowing your cast to madly improvise instead of actually providing a coherent script with a scintilla of inherent logic often leads to…
"The Shallows" is an 87-minute thriller set mostly in a lagoon where an injured surfer is battling a shark. There's not much plot beyond that, and what little the movie tries to add doesn't make it richer. Its situations are primal and often terrifying. The fact that they unfold in a fairly contained space—a stretch of shore-bordered water that looks to be about a kilometer across—intensifies the suspense. At its best, the film from screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski and director Jaume Collet-Serra ("Non-Stop," "Run All Night") is as close to a pure action film that mainstream cinema has seen since "Mad Max: Fury Road." It often uses its star, Blake Lively, the way "Fury Road" director George Miller used his actors: as a kinetic sculptural object that just happens to be able to think, feel, and die.
Advance publicity sold "The Shallows" as a horror film or perhaps a modern gloss on "Jaws," but it's really a survival thriller: woman versus nature, with nature represented most but not all of the time by a shark the size of a Winnebago. I'm exaggerating only a little: this slate-grey beast is as immense as the great white that took down the Orca in the first "Jaws," and it's a lot more agile, leaping into the air like a porpoise and twisting to snatch prey in hard-to-reach places.
Lively's character, a medical school dropout named Nancy, encounters the shark while visiting a beach in Mexico that used to be a favorite of her mother, who recently died of cancer. There's backstory conveyed through iPhone photos and expository dialogue, and it's as necessary to our appreciation of Nancy's predicament as Dennis Weaver's internal monologues were in Steven Spielberg's breakthrough, pre-"Jaws" TV movie "Duel." I.e., it's not. This is a lean, brutal movie about endurance and problem solving. It revolves around questions that are spelled out so clearly by the filmmaking—much of it wordless, driven by images, sound effects and Marco Beltrami's breathless score—that when Nancy mutters "forty meters" or "I've got you figured out" or somesuch, it's as if the film has momentarily lost faith in its power to excite and upset us.
Lively is superb here, giving one of those hyper-focused, action-lead performances that's as much an athletic feat as an aesthetic one. There are a handful of supporting characters, most of whom end up as shark bait, but in the end, "The Shallows" is a one-woman show that puts Lively on a jagged rocky pedestal and worships her. She wears a bikini so radiantly orange that seems to refract moonlight during the night scenes, and not since the heyday of Kevin Costner in the '90s has a star's posterior been so lovingly scrutinized. Lively does a lot of her own surfing (with a double filling in during the most dangerous bits). She runs and climbs, screams, cries, curses, dives into murky depths, swims through chop. Like Tom Hanks in "Cast Away," she has a non-human "buddy" to talk to: a seagull that she names Steven (get it?). It's corny—a lot of the film is corny, often knowingly so—but damned if you don't find yourself loving that bird and worrying that it won't last through the end credits.
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