Review: The Shallows

"The Shallows" is not a complicated movie. A woman is bitten by a shark and left stranded on a rocky outcropping that will soon vanish under the rising tide. She plans her escape back to shore while her attacker lurks, waiting. It's a stripped down premise for a thrilling game of cat and mouse that is at its best when at its simplest and which feels less special the bigger it tries to go.

After a brief ride through the Mexican jungle, Blake Lively's med-student-turned-surfer-girl Nancy arrives on the silver sands of an isolated beach called Paradise. Her smiles and warmth mask pain from a terrible loss that has blown her life off course. Here, on the crashing waves of crystal blue water, she hopes to find relief.

Clocking in at a sleek 87 minutes, "The Shallows" wastes no time getting Nancy into the water, but neither is it in any hurry to get to her attack. From the first moment she steps into the surf, our hearts beat a little faster. Somewhere out there, unseen, we know what waits for her. Director Jaume Collet-Serra aggravates those nerves by plunging the camera in and out of the water as Nancy blissfully rides the waves; the upbeat party music that accompanies her above is suddenly and completely drowned by a deep, uneasy silence.

When the attack finally comes, it is sudden and violent. As Nancy is dragged under reddening water, we never see the shark. Instead, the camera is locked close on her face. The pain conveyed is visceral and cringe inducing. By preying on our imaginations, "The Shallows" allows us this horrifying experience without showing its gory detail. It's fantastically effective for a PG-13.

Throughout the film, its best moments are those where it allows our imaginations to run wild. When Nancy fashions makeshift stitches for her legs, the visuals are admittedly grotesque, but it's the choice to stay on Nancy's face that makes you lightheaded. We feel as she feels, thanks to Lively's phenomenal performance and the faith the filmmaker has in us to relate to her.

In fact, it's hard to overstate how important Blake Lively is to the making "The Shallows" work. Her performance evokes a bit of Tom Hanks' from "Cast Away" (even if these movies aren't in the same league): she is on screen for nearly the entire running time, sharing the majority of it not with other actors but with her very own Wilson, here in the form of an injured sea gull. A barebones script offers her few opportunities to establish Nancy and her relationships, and yet we feel we know her anyway.

All of this means that when later the film loses grip of its "less is more" philosophy, it stings of disappointment. As the stakes are raised, the shark transforms from faceless force of nature to a more generic jumpy, chompy, bitey, malevolent creature. As it's attacks on Nancy escalate, the tension slowly deflates. No CGI shark will ever be as scary as one you can't see, and nothing it does will ever be as scary as what you imagine it could do.

Still, "The Shallows" surprises, thrills, and delights more than most and is a more layered film than it's simplicity suggests. Thanks to this film, I'm sure I'll have a moment of reflection the next time I'm standing on a beach, just before shaking it off and running into the sea.

Score: 4 / 5

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