Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, bloody peril, brief gore and fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.24.16
Solo turns are demanding even for accomplished performers, and for the obvious reason: It’s not easy to emote in a vacuum. Actors draw a lot of energy from the dynamic shared with co-stars; remove the rhythm established with such a bond, and the challenge increases exponentially.
Several examples leap to mind: Tom Hanks, in Cast Away; Robert Redford, in All Is Lost; and — for much of the film — Leonardo DiCaprio, in The Revenant. Perhaps not coincidentally, all are survival dramas.
To their company we now add Blake Lively, in The Shallows. And while I wouldn’t presume to equate her acting chops with the three individuals cited above, she nonetheless delivers a credible, persuasive portrayal of a resourceful, level-headed woman who does her best to overcome a horrific situation.
Because, yes, this is another survival drama.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra’s tidy little thriller can be summed up in three words: Woman vs. shark. But scripter Anthony Jaswinski finds increasingly clever ways to expand upon that simple premise, building suspense via the careful establishment of character and detail. Jaswinski, bless him, obviously understands the dramatic principle of Chekhov’s gun: If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.
The Shallows is constructed very much in the style of a taut three-act play: the deceptively calm introduction; the explosion of danger, and explicit disclosure of overwhelming odds; and, finally, the struggle. Given that structure, Jaswinski deftly inserts trivial and incidental first-act details that later prove important.
I like smart scripts, and this is a smart script.
We meet Nancy Adams (Lively) as a passenger being driven to an isolated beach somewhere along the Mexican coast (actually Lord Howe Island, approximately 600 nautical miles east of Sydney, Australia). As we gradually learn, via brief flashbacks and phone calls, she’s making a cathartic pilgrimage of sorts, to the place where family lore says she was conceived.
Nancy is a skilled surfer; so was her mother, in her day. Nancy’s driver, Carlos (Óscar Jaenada), doesn’t quite believe any of this saga, but he recognizes that the trip is nonetheless important to this perky American. Their skillfully sketched conversation, lasting only a few minutes, tells us everything we need to know about Nancy. Jaswinski’s dialog is economical; the casual, spontaneous bond between Nancy and Carlos is well developed by the two actors. It feels genuine.