OPEN WATER (2003)


THE BIG BITE

Daniel: Other people go on vacation and spend their days just laying around. We have a story that we’re going to be telling for the rest of our lives.

Two young people in silhouette walking on a beach with a gorgeous sunset blazing in the background. This was part of the trailer for this adventurous effort done by Chris Kentis. He had an interesting idea, based on true events, and for a slim 130k he produced it, wrote it, directed it, was the cinematographer, and with his wife he edited it. He had only completed one other film, GRIND, in 1997. He clearly illustrated to the jaded movie-going public that a talented man with a nothing budget, [that wouldn’t have even been a retainer for a known star] could create a very good film; what will probably emerge as a minor Indie classic. He shot the film with a digital camera, making him rather a videographer, and some of the time we did miss the depth and clarity of a 35mm lens shooting film.

Kentis packed up his actors, and his sparse crew, and flew to the Bahamas. He simply went out into the open sea and shot the piece. There were no shark cages, no stunt doubles. The actors were put in thin metal mesh under their wet suits, but when the shark wranglers tossed out the chum bait, those were real live sharks that came to call. Quite a gathering there in the open water; a driven director, hungry actors, and a pod of sharks; likewise hungry and driven. The normal SAG and common sense safety margins were condensed and reconfigured.

The film took Sundance by storm, and it won at the Seattle Film Festival as well. With all its rough edges, it still played out like a film; unlike the BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, which it has been compared to. That cult film played out like a bunch of slackers had been let loose with camcorders. This film had emotional punch and it toyed with our primal fears like JAWS had. But Kentis let our imagination do most of the work. This actually worked well for Spielberg too for the first third of his film, before he showed us Bruce. Perhaps we are giving Kentis too much credit. It might have been the expedient thing for him to do, something done out of sheer necessity. Yet it worked regardless. Often we were aware of “stock” shots of sharks, edited in to heighten tension. But when those fins surfaced near the actors, and those gray-brown shapes passed below them, foam rubber did not come to mind.

Roger Ebert wrote,” Rarely, but sometimes, a movie can have an actual physical effect on you. It gets under the radar of your defenses and side steps the “it’s only a movie” reflex, and it creates a visceral feeling that might as well be real.” One almost feels wet watching it, and all those hours in the water begin taking their toll. We know that the water was only tropically cold. We know that the spare air in their O2 tanks would help to hold them up. Yet we are still amazed at the marathon effort this couple expended to survive. We began to realize that out there on the open ocean, as in the raw nakedness of outer space—no one could hear you when you scream.

The film begins in a low-key way, letting us get to know our protagonists, Susan and David, and to begin to care about them. They are two hard-working twenty-somethings that are very stressed out by their lives, and who dearly need a “vacation”. But after a time we find that this vacation was a bit forced, wedged in, and somewhat ill-prepared for. Kentis used relative unknowns for the leads. Blanchard Ryan played Susan. Her real first name is Susan, but SAG let her know there was another member with that name. She has appeared in eight films since 1998, movies like SUPER TROOPERS, but essentially her face is still unknown. In this role she seemed fresh, sexy, and smart. Her one gratuitous nude scene was a welcome addition to the mix. Daniel Travis played Daniel. It was interesting to me that both of their characters had the actor’s real first names; probably enhancing that sense of “reality” for them. Travis appears to be brand new to film work. He has no other credits. Some felt that his performance was a bit wooden. I disagree. He is a good actor, and soon he will get better. His performance had all the appropriate shadings; humor, anger, despair, and genuine fear.

This premise worked well for Kentis; unlike Gus Van Sant with his film GERRY. He used Matt Damon for one his characters in a two-person drama. We kept waiting for something to happen, as two young men were lost and wandering in the desert. When finally something did happen, in the last few gasps of plot, it was confusing and cut oddly. Unknown actors probably would have better served Van Sant. It some odd way, the film was not enhanced with Damon’s well-known presence.

Kentis made another excellent choice in going with “natural” lighting. After dark, on the first night, during the thunderstorm, we could only see the characters in flashes of lightning, like absurd commedia masks of terror caught in a flicker of black lights. But in the darkness, when the screen was blank, we could hear quite well; hear the panic in their voices as the sharks began to glide in closer, bumping into their legs.

Admittedly, fear in films has been a much-explored dominion. In this movie the first fear to rear its black head was fear of abandonment, and it worked devastatingly well.

Susan: Where’s the boat?

Daniel: That’s a good question.
[Looks around] I guess it is one of those.

Susan: You gotta’ be kidding me.

Daniel: It better be one of those.

Susan: Well which one do you think?

Daniel: I don’t know.

Susan: Should we pick one, and swim toward it.

Daniel: Do you realize how far those are from us?

Susan: We’re stuck in the middle of the ocean!

Daniel: This can’t be happening!

This was followed by the fear of extreme fatigue, fear of exhaustion and hopelessness. Hour after grueling hour, they tread water and tried to convince themselves that a rescue party was actually searching for them. Followed by the fear of being eaten alive; of being torn to pieces by a ravenous predator.

Susan: Oh God, something’s rubbing against my foot!

[Then seeing a shark swimming in front of them]

What kind of sharks are those?

Daniel: Big ones.

Susan: I don’t know which is worse, not seeing them but knowing they’re there, or seeing them.

Daniel: Seeing them.

When I was a young man, over 40 years ago, I accompanied some high school friends to a public beach at a Northwest lake at midnight. We all went for a swim. The illumination from our collective car headlights only tickled the shore at the edge of the water, and that’s where we all swam. But I decided to show off, and I swam out to the middle of the lake to the float and the diving tower. I climbed carefully up the damp ladder, and inched my way out to the end of the bouncy board, 15’ above the water. Screaming a rebel yell, I dove from the tower down into the dark water; down, down into the terrible darkness my body plummeted. Soon I felt my fists grasp warm mud ahead of me on the bottom of the lake. So I kicked off for what I hoped would be the surface. It was difficult because I was totally disoriented in the depths.! The blackness was absolute. There was no sense of direction at all. As I kicked strongly along, suddenly I began to panic. I had seen too many movies like THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, all about scaly creatures and aquatic monsters in muddy dark water. I had the sense that something was going to grab my legs and pull me down. My friends told me that I came up out that water like a bottle rocket, and almost tail-walked to shore. My completely uncontrollable panic and that ton of deeply rooted fear surprised me, and it stayed with me.

Like many people, I am not a strong swimmer. Deep water frightens me to the bone. So for me, watching this film was like viewing TV’s FEAR FACTOR when a participant lets dozens of spiders run over his face, or has to lie down in a narrow box full of hundreds of snakes. The movie seemed very realistic. The characters used quite realistic dialogue when they faced their peril and their fears. Compare this to the stilted dialogue mouthed by the characters in Alfred Hitchcock’s LIFEBOAT. Ebert wrote further,” The dialogue is believable. No poetry. No philosophy. No histrionics—just the way two people talk when they know each other well.”

Daniel: I can’t believe we paid to be here! The only reason that we are out here in the first place is because of your fucking job!

Susan: What?

Daniel: It if were not for your job, we would not have thrown our plans out the window, rushed around at the last minute and settled on this fucking trip! We would be at home, in the middle of our hectic lives, which right now sounds like heaven to me. And in a month’s time, seven months ago, we would be where we were supposed to be in the first place, and paying less than we are now to be shark bait!

Susan: I can’t even believe you’d bring that up right now. You were the one who picked the dates.

Daniel: Oh yeah, my whopping two choices—this was the better date.

Susan: [Weeping] I wanted to go skiing!

Critics were divided on this film. It was a love or hate response. One wrote,” It is too underdramatised to provoke anything more than a mild discomfort.” Another wrote,” It just is not gripping. It barely treads water.” At the other end of the spectrum Peter Bradshaw wrote,” This is a Low-Fi thriller that is so gripping; I found the muscles in my arms and legs aching from the tension and the suspense. Watching this movie was the emotional equivalent of bungee jumping. The ending is a devastating surprise, capping the 80+ sweat-soaked minutes of tension.”

As an editor, Kentis cut the film brilliantly, carefully controlling the passage of time; easing us into sunset and sunrise on those vast empty sea horizons. He pandered to our need for some shreds of hope when they first viewed the two boats as they surfaced, as they saw the belled buoy and tried to swim toward it, and when that huge shadow freighter slipped past them like a giant apparition. As audience members, we hoped that those islands of safety were attainable and reachable. But we had to accept that the current was stronger than both of them. Many times they rose up out of the water, waving their hands and yelling. But soon it became evident that no one could see them or hear them. They were, in fact, completely alone, cut off, and abandoned. Missing, but not yet missed. They were soon countless miles from their original diving spot. Then to add to this hopelessness, we began to become acutely aware of those lethal dorsal fins slicing the waves, and thrashing up foam, cruising coldly around them in ever-decreasing circles.

Over the decades we have been conditioned as an audience. Usually when you watch a movie it is as plot assurance that the protagonists will triumph over adversity. So we watched this film carefully, waiting patiently for the upbeat ending. The sense of it began the morning of the second day, when the charter boat captain discovered their left-behind gear and identification. He raised the alarm, and the rescue began. Helicopters thropped out to the open sea, and a large armada of search boats churned their way toward the original drop-off point. We had the feeling that somehow, one or both of our lead characters would make it to safety. One or both of them had to make it; cinematic decorum dictated it.

Even after a shark attacked Daniel, and a large part of his leg had been torn off, Susan was still calming him down, belting off the wound and continuing to cling to the gossamer threads of hope for a rescue. And so were we. Actually there was very little blood and violence on the screen, no great spurts of blood as the sharks take their bites. One’s imagination is the key. It does the hard work filling in the unseen gore.

Roger Ebert wrote further,” It is a quiet film, and the ending is so low key, we almost miss it.” That final scene began with a close-up of Susan’s face. Her features were stone hard. Resignation had replaced anger, and even fear had vacated. She was gently holding Daniel as he bobbed next to her, eyes staring at nothing. He had bled out and died some time in the night. She removed his tanks and shoved his body away from her. The sharks began to hit it soon there after; at first just nibbling, then taking massive bites. His body twirled and bobbed with his head down, being twisted and tugged on from below. We did not really see the carnage, yet we certainly understood what was happening.

Susan removed her tanks, treading water as they floated away from her on the current. Quickly, quietly, without a whimper, she sank below the surface. The surface of the water was hardly disturbed. Christ, what had we seen? Did a shark pull her down? No, a small voice in my head said.

She simply preferred being consciously drowned to being devoured while still conscious. It was a small matter of will, of choice, or control. Was it courage born of desperation, or just a form of hopeless surrender to her inevitable fate? I had a chill when I pictured her dead drowned eyes watching the predators make their first foray in for a taste of her pale flesh.

I liked this movie. It freaked me, shocked me, and faked me out. It made me very aware of how tenuous that slender thread is that tethers us to what we recognize as our life. We need to; we have to believe that our lives have importance, and value, and that they make some kind of sense. Otherwise how could we rise daily and work away our youth, and gather our modest treasures, and plan for retirement? For these characters, adrift out there, the entire weave and fabric of their lives had been stripped away, and their environment, that empty vastness of ocean, was indifferent to them. Once they became supremely aware of their actual insignificance, they ceased to be human. They became flotsam with faces; lower on the food chain than fish. There would be an ending, or some kind of metaphysical transition, but it would not be related to anything Hollywood or upbeat. Their flesh became their entire worth to the denizens surrounding them; reduced to mere protein cubes of nourishment for the carnivores waiting, with the smell of blood in their nostrils. It is truly the stuff of nightmares.



I gave this movie a rating of 3.5 stars
Glenn Buttkus