Director : Chris Kentis
Screenplay : Chris Kentis
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Blanchard Ryan (Susan), Daniel Travis (Daniel), Saul Stein (Seth), Estelle Lau (Estelle), Michael E. Williamson (Davis), Cristina Zenarro (Linda), John Charles (Junior)
After making the biggest splash at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Chris Kentis’sOpen Water is being touted as the next great indie-crossover, a Blair Witch-ish thriller made on a meager budget and shot in digital video that nonetheless generates the kinds of white-knuckle chills that all the special effects in the world can’t buy. And, to be sure, once it hits its stride, Open Water is as terrifying as anything you’re likely to see this year, but not in the manner you might expect.
Granted, there are moments that make you jump in your seat, but the primary emotion the film elicits is one of despondency, a kind of sinking sense of primal fear that starts in your heart and slowly, but surely sinks down to your stomach. The rough, pixilated images generated by the film’s digital video look terrible, but they also supply a low-resolution intensity that heightens the story’s present-tense immediacy. More so than most horror movies, which are hellbent on either freaking you out or grossing you out, Open Water plays on deep-set, age-old childhood fears about desertion and being lost, the kind of fear that fuels cautionary fairy tales.
The protagonists are an on-the-go yuppie couple, Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis), who leave behind their harried world of dual high-pressure jobs, cell phones, and laptops to take a week in the Bahamas. The early scenes establish the basic parameters of their relationship—they clearly love each other, but they’re often too tired or too busy to exhibit it in anything more than the most rudimentary fashion. Even when they are in the Bahamas, the pressures of their everyday lives creep in, as Daniel can’t help checking his e-mail and Susan aborts a night of lovemaking at the last minute because she’s still “stressed.” These scenes set the story’s emotional core, but they are easily the movie’s weakest link, as they have a somewhat perfunctory quality to them, and they are marred by Chris Kentis’s inexplicable need to throw in extreme close-ups, which have an amateurish, student-film quality about them.
One morning, Susan and Daniel go out on a chartered diving trip, but when they surface, they find that the boat has already left because the head counter mistakenly counted two other people twice (apparently, this has happened before, as the movie claims to be “based on true events”). And it is here, in the middle of the ocean, that the rest of the movie takes place, as Susan and Daniel float perilously in their scuba gear, being dragged along with the current (whether it’s further out to sea or toward the coast we don’t know), slowly but surely being beaten down by the elements.
Part of the Open Water’s effect is the way it traces Susan and Daniel’s gradual breakdown. They remain surprisingly calm when they first realize their situation, and for hours they hold on to the hope that they will be missed and the boat will return. But, that optimism slowly fades as the day draws on, and soon they are bickering and laying blame, and Daniel has one moment where he literally explodes, cursing the cruel irony of their situation in a scene of cathartic gallows humor (“We paid for this!” he yells). These scenes are punctuated with moments of tenderness between Susan and Daniel, and we get a better feel for their humanity in these extreme conditions than we did in the earlier “domestic” scenes. Kentis clearly likes these people, which makes the scenes of their suffering seem all the more sadistic.
Which, of course, brings us to the sharks. Not having a budget for special effects, director Chris Kentis shot the movie in the open ocean with real sharks, many of which appear in the same frame with his actors, which gives the movie a biting sense of documentary-like reality, as well as some of the best jump moments when a shark fin unexpectedly surfaces right in front of you. Kentis uses the sharks to emphasize the movie’s relentless appeal to the fear of open space. “I don’t know which is worse, “Susan says at one point, “seeing them or not seeing them,” which is precisely what works so well in the movie’s escalating fear factor.
This conflict between vision and blindness is the movie’s chief operating principle. Seeing the sharks suddenly surface is a horrifying moment because it confirms your fear, but when they’re swimming below, unseen, it intensifies the dread of helplessness. The surface of the ocean is a vast expanse of nothingness, offering only miles of water that can’t be consumed, while the even more vast expanse beneath is an unseen world of predators and death. Either way, Susan and Daniel are surrounded and utterly, completely helpless.
This is really driven home in the movie’s most terrifying sequence, when night falls and a thunderstorm erupts and we listen to Susan and Daniel’s terrified voices and catch brief glimpses of them in flashes of lightning. We don’t see much, but we know that the worst is happening. It’s as if the movie primary intention is to confirm the declaration made in Jaws (1975) by Robert Shaw’s Quint after he tells the story of the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis: “I’ll never put on a life jacket again.”
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 Lions Gate Films