A film review by Craig J. Koban

OPEN WATER jjjj

2004, R, 79 mins.

Susan: Blanchard Ryan / Daniel: Daniel Travis / Seth: Saul Stein / Estelle: Estelle Lau / Davis: Michael E. Williamson / Junior: John Charles / Linda: Christina Zenaro

Written, directed and edited by Chris Kentis

Open Water PosterChris Kentis’ OPEN WATER is a small low budget masterpiece of mind-numbing tension, mood, and overall aquatic eeriness that deserves a very strong comparison to the original JAWS.  

At one point in this short film one of the characters (after she and her husband have been stranded at sea for hours) asks him if, “Sharks are worse when you see them or don’t see them.”  Of course, the husband answers when he "sees them," but I think that, to the audience, we're more frightened by what we don’t see.  Much like the similar themed 1975 Spielberg thriller, OPEN WATER works enormously well on its simple and intended visceral levels.  This film is a primal journey and emotionally driven, not plot driven, and it achieves exactly what its aiming for.

Spielberg wisely chose not to show too much of the shark in his film because it was they very thought of the shark that was both agonizing and scary.  What makes Kentis’ film so emotionally draining is not only the fact that we see very little sharks in it, but also how the characters are left with such a lumbering amount of time to think about the very thought of a shark attack.  What’s worse – being eaten alive by a shark or thinking about the possibility of it happening for a span of 12 hours while you are stranded at sea?  The resulting film is a true out-of-body experience, one that has you in the grips of its world and asks you to hang on for the ride.  Too many modern thrillers are too self-aware and overblown to allow this, but OPEN WATER is deceptively simple and frank about its tension, which makes it resonate all the more believably. 

If PSYCHO made your reconsider showering in strange and desolate motels, and JAWS made you fear beaches and swimming, then OPEN WATER will most assuredly make you think twice about the next scuba dive you plan on taking.  The film is based on such a remarkably sparse premise.  Of its 79 minutes,  a  couple being stranded at sea, fearing for their lives, occupies 60 of it.  It’s an incredible testament to the inventiveness of the director, with a loose budget of under $120,000 allowed him to find ways to thrill audiences in new and exciting ways.  For a film that has a young couple essentially bickering at one another for an hour in the ocean, OPEN WATER is, rather amazingly, never dull or boring.  Its a remarkably  absorbing experience, and Kentis proves that you can  give so much with so little. 

The film starts off very modestly and details the not too particularly exciting efforts of a couple – Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis) as they prepare for a much needed getaway to a tropical island paradise.  The opening scenes show them preparing, discussing, and anticipating their trip, and the brightness and cheeriness of this expository scene in no way prepares us for the psychological horror of what’s to come.  The couple then arrives at their vacation spot and after taking in some of the local pleasures,  they decide to embark on an exclusive scuba diving expedition. 

Big mistake! 

The film takes its times with these opening moments and is especially leisurely paced with the scuba expedition.  It never feels the need to rush the proceedings, and spends some time showing the couple (and their other fellow scuba divers) prepare, embark, and enjoys their expedition.  Things go incredible bad for the young couple, and due to a ridiculously lazy and inane administrative error, they're both left behind while they were still under water.  The boat leaves and Susan and Daniel are left to brace the elements of the large and expansive sea.   

Okay, how in the world could this blunder have possibly happened, considering the impeccable number of safety precautions that the diving instructors have levied on the patrons?  Well, I guess we have to sustain a certain acceptable level of belief that dumb things like this could happen (and they did, as the film is loosely based on the 1998 disappearance of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, who were left behind by their diving boat off the coast of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia).  So, Susan and Daniel are left alone for a long, long, long time, with no relative hope in sight.  Day turns to afternoon, afternoon turns to night, and when the blackness of the twilight spills out and a thunderstorm approaches, the utter helplessness of the two becomes increasingly apparent.   

The fascinating approach to OPEN WATER is just how real the film feels.  Daniel and Susan, for starters, don’t talk in that sort of silly and moronic movie dialogue while trapped at sea, nor does their predicament lead to instant panic.  In an amusing way, they really don’t panic at first, but more or less engage in petty arguments.  Daniel, being a textbook stubborn man, feels that he brought the two to the correct point, sighting a reef below them that was to serve as a guiding marker.  However, when Susan looks below and is not capable of seeing the reef, its damn clear that the man is wrong and this moment is kind of painfully analogous to when men refuse to ask for directions to town when their masculinity and foolish pride are on the line.  Their initial indifference to their situation leads to a bit of foolish pondering.  They think that, hell, the boat could just not have left them there and will return to get them.  Well, when it appears that the boat won’t return, their indifference paves into anger (“I wanted to go skiing!” Susan screams while Daniel responds back bitterly, “We paid for this, that’s the real kicker!").  But, as the hours continue to drag back with no rescue in sight, Daniel and Susan allow fear to settle in, and its here where the film settles into scenes of powerful tension. 

The film not only feels plausible, but is also played for maximum veracity.  I loved the way Daniel and Susan kind of develop as characters through their ridiculous ordeal and their conversations that they have are done in a manner and hopeless effort to sort of subside any fear or sense of hopelessness they might be experiencing.  They talk about a lot of things, with many portions of the conversations pointing towards aspects of the Discovery Channel that Daniel has etched in his mind and how it gives him some pointers about oceanic life.  Of course, he tells Susan not to drink the seawater, as that would give her nausea, dehydration, and promote vomiting.  Furthermore, any vomit (or blood for that matter) could attract all sorts of creatures, most likely sharks.  And, yes, Susan did drink some water before she heard all of this and does throw up.  Daniel then deadpans, very humorously, “Let’s swim away from the puke, dear.” 

Daniel’s TV watching also sort of prepares them for the dreaded inevitable – the prospects of meeting up with sharks.  He tries to console her by telling her that most sharks will not attack as long as you remain still and motionless.  This is clearly much easier said then done, and this modern couple have probably been inundated with multiple viewings of JAWS, which only perpetuates their fears more.  Their terrified misgivings grow more and more with each new shark sighting, and when Daniel’s leg is eventually bitten, you just know that things are not going to end altogether well for the couple.  The film's final moments, which are allowed to play quietly well into the ending credits, are sad, darkly amusing and chillingly ironic.

The film is essentially a narrative void with no discernable plot, but Kentis wisely decides not to juxtapose the couple’s problem with any other erroneous and needless subplots involving other characters.  Rather, he focuses essentially on them and three quarters of the film shows them, by themselves, in the ocean.  The film is ever so casual in developing the film to this point, which only later heightens the pathos of the concluding scenes.  Kentis also has a keen and perceptive eye for what really scares an audience.  He correctly does not show us too many sharks.  We get quick glimpses here and there, but there’s no glorified CGI or mechanical effects here.  He used real sharks for the film and had the actors wear protective underlay with their scuba gear.  The IMDB states that “no digital or practical special effects” were used on the film.  This is sort of a blessing, because the film works better because of that.  It's not one of those half-baked and manufactured thrillers.  Yes, it’s a planned and sustained exercise in filmmaking, but the effect is so real and raw that it almost achieves a sort of pseudo-documentary feel that made THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT so terrifying.  The film exists ostensibly as an exercise in terror and mood, and it works fantastically in these ways.  No better is this felt then when the film shifts to night and ominous storm clouds loom in.  Not only is the couple tired, sick, and scared of being eaten alive, but now – DAMMIT!!! – it's dark and gonna pour on them!  You really feel the dread in these characters in these moments. 

Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis, being relative unknowns, are really the unsung heroes of the piece.  They truly feel like a plausible couple and relate and interact with one another in countless ways that may make audience members recall similar conversations with their better halves.  They don’t go for big, overblown emotions in their performances when simple nods, looks, gestures, and a few words speaks volumes.  The direction is as minimalist and strong as the performances.  OPEN WATER, for a film with no budget and shot on digital video, looks great and I appreciated the ways Kentis gets the most out of his money.  He has a fine and keen directorial eye, but he also is a masterful editor of his material, trimming shots down individually to get the right required effect.  His style is loose, sporadic, free flowing, and not slavish to the conventions of modern horror-thrillers.  OPEN WATER is so much more intelligent and thoughtful than many contemporary blockbusters, and, for my money, much more thrilling and tense then THE VILLAGE.   

OPEN WATER is one of those films that inspires different levels of fear than one would think  from a film like this. Yes, sharks are scary.  Yes, the ocean is scary, especially when you don’t have a boat.  But OPEN WATER works in more ways than this; it’s also about hopelessness and the intense fear of not being found or rescued.  It creates a hybrid of so many human emotions – not just fear, but anger, resentment, hostility, and paranoia.  It also does an exquisite job of creating a sort of inverse-claustrophobia.  It's one thing to be locked in a room with no windows, but it’s a whole other feeling to be stranded in an ocean with no boats around and hundreds of miles of sea water stretching out to every horizon.  Now that’s scary.  As Daniel and Susan slowly begin to realize the complete desperation of their situation, we feel it with them.  The film is a textbook exercise in audience empathy, and surely that's the job of effective thrillers.  

OPEN WATER is one of the better recent ones.

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