Jaume Collet-Serra may not be a household name, but in the past decade he has been making his mark with skilled and stylish genre films from 2009’s Orphan to last years’ Run All Night. They’ve been a collection of films that have always embraced the inherent genre elements, but he allows those elements to play out with sincerity, humanity and expert craftsmanship. His streak continues with his latest offering, The Shallows.
In terms of plotting, The Shallows keeps things simple. Nancy Adams (Blake Lively) goes to a secluded beach where she is wounded by a shark attack, leading her stranded on a rock and in a desperate struggle for survival. That’s it. However, in the film’s simplicities, Jaume Collet-Serra (who I’ll just refer to as JCS from this point on) pulls genuine humanity and emotion out of, what is unabashedly, B-movie material. Nancy is at the beach because it is a place where her mother went. Her mother recently died of cancer and going to this mysterious beach is a way for Nancy to find some peace and clarity in her life. Her death has also led to Nancy losing the will to move on, as she considers quitting medical school. And what the film does brilliantly is weave these emotional and character driven beats with the peaks and valleys of her attempt at survival.
Oh, and there is a bird in the movie named Steven Seagull. So, whatever flaws there may be can easily be overlooked.
A thing I’ve noticed in several JCS films is the theme of a lost protagonist (emotionally/psychologically speaking) being tested and driven to find personal meaning. In the case of The Shallows, that underlying theme is delivered at its most up close and personal, and it is largely due to its stripped down narrative. And as well executed this might seem, it wouldn’t have worked without the strong and committed performance from Blake Lively. Aside from a few Latino cast members (most of whom get only a few lines anyway) and her family members (again, handful of lines at the most), it is basically just Blake Lively having to work by herself and she kills it. It’s the kind of horror, agony and pain that Leonardo DiCaprio attempted with The Revenant, but with the drive, honest emotion and pathos that Leo completely lacked. It’s a genuinely strong performance, and the film wouldn’t be the same without it. Plus, the bird, Steven Seagull, was pretty cool.
Despite the runtime that just under 90 minutes, there are some wonderful flourishes from JCS that add to the intensity and anticipation. He is very much aware of genre conventions, so he is able to play with his audience, especially when it came to the build up to the shark attacks. With his confident direction, and writer, Anthony Jaswinski, they really squeeze every possibility they can with it’s basic plot setup and location without ever feeling like it’s treading similar water from other shark movies. And this is very much a shark movie, by the way, full of fun and suspenseful shark action. It embraces what makes a great shark movie, silliness and all (and boy, oh boy, is there some silly shit toward the end), but it’s all grounded with a strong story about a character dealing in grief. The silly shark stuff is there, but it is there in a way that feels like it matters. And it works so well that it almost doesn’t matter that there is sometimes questionable VFX.
I’ll also say this really pushed the PG-13 rating to its fullest extent, in case anyone thought the rating was a sign of the film not being gnarly enough for the kind of genre fans that would eat this up. Not only is there a lot of blood, but there’s a fair amount of gore. At one point, you see a dude crawling away from the bottom half of his body. Dimly lit as it was, it was still some fun gruesomeness. So, props for not holding back.
The Shallows is a really great example of how to make a dumb movie in a smart way. In many ways, it is basically this year’s Gravity, just without some of the technological boundary pushing and spiritual subtext. While it is very much rooted in some silly B-movie schlock, there is really great character work to go alongside the thrill ride and it is centered on a really rock solid performance from Blake Lively. It’s a film about learning to cope with grief, while also being a crazy genre film, a refreshing change of pace compared to some of the bigger, bloated blockbusters you might see this summer. It’s tight, it’s fun, it’s smartly crafted and it shows that JCS is a director that means business, even when he’s making a shark movie at a time where they are basically considered a joke. Going to the ocean hasn’t felt this intense in 41 years.
Did I mention there’s a bird that Blake Lively calls Steven Seagull? 80/100