The Shallows has a basic premise. A surfer is injured by a shark a mere 200 yards away from the shore of a secluded beach, and somehow has to make it back to land before the high tide sweeps her off the rock she’s clinging to. It largely excels because instead of fleshing out anything extra, director Jaume Collet-Serra (Non-Stop, Orphan) enhances the simplicity with great precision. He’s able to convey just enough back story in an organic way and instead uses the bulk of the film’s runtime for isolated peril. Giving credit where credit is due, there are far more surprises here than one would expect. And it’s a lot of fun.
We’re introduced to Nancy (Blake Lively) as she’s on her way to a “secret” Mexican beach that her mother visited before giving birth to Nancy, her first born. Collet-Serra is able to get a bunch of information from Nancy’s phone, while she maintains a casual conversation with the local man (Óscar Jaenada) who’s driving her. We glean that she’s alone because her friend who made the trip to Mexico with her is hungover and has decided to pursue a man she met the night prior. Nancy doesn’t know the name of the beach and the driver doesn’t name it for her. By the time she’s dropped off, she’s already broken two of the rules we’re supposed to’ve learned from 127 Hours: Take a buddy, and if you don’t, at least tell someone where you are.
From a FaceTime home to her father and sister, we learn that Nancy is at conflict between adulthood (med school) and the carefree nature of youth (dropping out of med school to surf-out her life dilemma). As she undresses down to her bikini, she notices that the rock formation in the distance vaguely resembles a pregnant woman. If Nancy can leave the beach after the upcoming events, she’ll certainly birth a new sense of self.
There are two other surfers out on this day (Jose “Yuco” Trujillo Salas and Angelo Lozano Corzo). Despite their implores to join them, Nancy keeps a safe distance. She’s not here to meet people. Preceding the arrival of the shark, Collet-Serra stages an endless summer surf montage set to thudding party music and cheers and from the three surfers. When the camera follows the waves below the surface, the music and joy from the top drops out, because whatever is below the surface is of a different world. It doesn’t have time for recreational activities.
Because she’s come to be alone, Nancy doesn’t follow the two surfers in when they leave, preferring to go “one last time” — which we know is our cue for some gnashing teeth and shark fin placement (we also see her distrust of others as she watches them tensely as they pass her bag, thinking they’ll steal from her). Collet-Serra gets a standard psyche-out false alarm before taking us to what appears to be a rock in the distance. As Nancy gets closer she sees that it’s the corpse of a whale. She’s inadvertently entered a feeding ground.
The attack itself is breathtaking. Collet-Serra prolongs the tease. And when the shark knocks Nancy of her board, he shows that the ocean floor is equal in punishment to her body, in a marvelous long take that’s capped with the slow rise of her blood as she struggles to get back to the surface. On the surface she has three options for refuge, but they’re spaced pretty far apart. There’s the rotting whale corpse. There’s the actual rock. And there’s the tethered buoy.
Spatial distance is key to the tension in The Shallows. Collet-Serra wants you to be aware of these landing options and see that the shore is cruelly close but impossible to get to with a disturbed great white shark on the hunt. Because everything is so close, yet so far, Lively has to convey a dual hopelessness and hopefulness. Acting against no one else (save a seagull with an injured wing), Lively is up to the challenge. True, she can’t be upstaged by anyone else, but she is able to make Nancy a fuller character than the situation should allow for. It’s a new side of the Gossip Girl, and she’ll certainly deserve a few more short list mentions if The Shallows finds its audience.
The very things that make The Shallows a success, though, also holds the film back from being great, as there’s a degree of inevitability that can’t be shaken. There’s great tension when Nancy gets back into the water, but no clamping down of sheer terror. And while the familial exposition is handled with some natural modern grace in the beginning, there’s also a cringing saccharine closure to it.
By and large, the movie’s other star — the shark — looks fantastic, with the exception of one big moment, and “Steven” the seagull is a nice Wilson for Nancy. But what keeps The Shallows fun is its shallowness in narrative. Once we’re on the secret beach, we don’t leave it. Once Nancy is stranded, we stay with her. As Flavio Labiano‘s underwater camera shows us, even in the shallower depths, there is plenty indiscriminate punishment in the ocean.
The Shallows opens in limited release Friday June 24 and nationwide on Wednesday June 29.