Nancy (Blake Lively) is a young woman attempting to retreat from her life. Off on a sojourn to a far-flung, picturesque corner of Mexico, she is endeavoring to hunt down a beach once visited by her mother while she was pregnant with Nancy, a beach so secretive that the locals are reticent to even tell Nancy its name. Nancy is catching a ride with one such local, attempting to have as much of a conversation as her limited grasp of the Spanish language will allow. He’s going to drop her off at this mystery beach so she can ride a few waves. Her friend bails on her via text due to a massive hangover, meaning she will have to go it alone. When she gets to the beach, strips down to her bikini, grabs her board and paddles out into the water, she encounters a couple of young men, also surfing. They invite her to surf with them.
The Shallows has barely even begun and it already drips with potential danger. Nancy, whom we learn from clumsily inserted exposition via a phone call (that’s some phone if it gets bars on Nowhere Beach, Mexico) with her dad and younger sister, has walked away from medical school after her mother lost her hard-fought battle with cancer, but for a med student, she doesn’t seem terribly bright at first blush. Hitchhiking alone to a remote location with no set way of getting back, surfing without accompaniment, fraternizing with strangers who could do unspeakable things to her with no witnesses, and, finally, remaining out in the water at sundown after her (fortunately, non-rapist) fellow thrill-seekers decide to pack it in, she doesn’t behave like someone fully cognizant of her surroundings and how fraught with peril they are. By the time she’s preyed upon by a massive shark, you’re almost surprised that she even made it far enough for that.
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who previously helmed a troika of lowbrow Liam Neeson actioners (one presumes Neeson isn’t starring here so that we aren’t more concerned about the wellbeing of the shark), The Shallows is an effective little number. Nancy attempts to take refuge on the carcass of a dead whale – essentially making her the olive toothpicked atop a sandwich for the shark – before finding a sturdier sanctuary on a nearby rock. She sustains a truly ghastly shark bite to the thigh and cuts up her feet on some coral, leaving her gushing blood into the water. Illustrating that her time in med school wasn’t for naught, she manages to use her necklace to suture the wound, but that only prevents her from bleeding to death. She still needs to find a way to safety, and the thrill of The Shallows is how increasingly harrowing Nancy’s situation grows.
Every opportunity for rescue that presents itself (the appearance of an amoral drunk on the beach; the return of the two surfer guys the following day; a barge on the horizon) is coldly extinguished. Every plan she concocts (awkwardly voiced out loud, to no one in particular) is sound, smart even, but thwarted by circumstance. Putting aside the extreme naiveté that landed her in her predicament, Nancy is a pretty shrewd thinker when her survival instincts kick in. But she can’t catch a break, and it’s a strength of the film that we constantly, palpably, feel the hopelessness of her situation.
The film is essentially a one-woman show for Lively, who does some solid work in what is a deceptively difficult role. This could have merely been an exercise in exploitation (she is wearing a bikini the entire time, after all), but Lively lives up to her surname, making Nancy the proper blend of tough and vulnerable, of resourceful and helpless. She never feels anything less than authentic and makes a remarkably effective Everyman avatar (how she remains functional after 48 hours of blood loss and exposure with no food or water, however, is a question best left unasked). Medical know-how aside, she behaves and thinks like a real person and makes intelligent decisions. In a horror film, that’s always a welcome, and infrequent, development.
The film is structured so efficiently that it’s a major disappointment when Collet-Serra botches the finale. When Nancy decides to take her final stand against the shark, the movie betrays the realism and intelligence it had afforded her character up to that point, culminating in a final action that is completely absurd. The Shallows is such a well-crafted genre excursion for so much of its runtime that it can survive this late-in-the-game miscalculation, but it’s still discouraging that the film couldn’t think of a better denouement. The film will obviously net comparisons to Jaws, as all shark films will until the day the sun extinguishes, but the film has far more in common with 2004’s flyspeck thriller Open Water. In that film, a couple has to grapple with surviving after being abandoned in shark-infested waters. They don’t fare so well. Nancy’s fate will not be revealed here, but the fact that her survival never seems to be assured is another way that The Shallows shows depth.
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