by Benjamín Harguindey
The Shallows is a situational thriller that is brief, intense, sometimes realistic, sometimes ridiculous and all in all pretty effective. As with Gravity (2013), a mourning woman is subjected to an extenuating tour de force – as orchestrated by Murphy’s Law – that constantly puts her on the edge of death and kickstarts an arc of inner reckoning. They’re like custom-sized disaster movies.
In Nancy’s (Blake Lively) case, she’s destined to duel a great white shark. This she does in a secret beach somewhere off the coast of Mexico, where surf’s up. On her way there the locals refuse to tell her the name of the place she’s headed for, as if knowingly complicating the plot (one of them stops short from winking at the camera), but are they really? Nancy finds herself completely alone and unable to communicate with anybody throughout her nightmarish ordeal, so one wonders how knowing the name of the beach would’ve been of any help in the first place.
Nancy’s attacked by the shark and left stranded on some rocks in the sea: alone, badly injured, without any hope for help and with only some hours before the tide rises. She’s a mere 200 yards from the shore, but the shark looms about and Nancy cannot swim for more than a few seconds before drawing its attention, bloodied as she is. So she must improvise every waking minute with whatever resources she has at hand in order to make it back to land.
This is not the harrowing man vs. nature fable the synopsis makes it out to be, something perhaps in the vein of The Grey (2011). We’re on silly territory as soon as Lively pulls her wetsuit’s zipper halfway down her cleavage, and her stunt double rides some waves for an MTV-style opening montage. Once she’s stranded on those rocks she even finds time to befriend a seagull and dub it “Steven Seagal”, in what is perhaps the movie’s biggest conceit.
The immediate comparison is to Jaws (1975), though The Shallows feels less like Steven Spielberg’s seminal blockbuster and more like any of the other absurd, hyperactive thrillers directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (at least three of which star action-mode Liam Neeson). Other than the abominable Squaliforme’s presence, the conflict is comparatively plain. Jaws builds up conflict on several tiers (external, social, situational, etc); The Shallows makes a vague attempt at associating Nancy’s primal struggle with a convoluted backstory about her deceased mother.
When in the end she achieves catharsis (never mind how), the moment doesn’t carry any weight, because none of the things Nancy achieves throughout the movie can be related in any way back to her family issues; simply put, nothing indicates she couldn’t have achieved catharsis in any other fashion. The shark is entirely circumstantial and for that Nancy’s plight – as well as the movie – feels wholly gratuitous.
In any case The Shallows is an effective thriller, tense and unnerving on a superficial (shallow?) level. Blake Lively is a good choice for the lead role; even it it mostly reactionary, her spaced-out look and loopy presence sets the right tone for the movie (i.e. silly). Collet-Serra has directed worse movies. Jaws has certainly had worse sequels.
Benjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).