They say having a baby can put the last coffin nail in a bad marriage. Try surfacing from your vacation scuba dive to find that the tour boat has left and there's nothing but horizon in all directions.
That's the set-up in "Open Water,"where a couple on shaky terms has nothing better to do but bicker about whose fault it is they are in this predicament as darkness – and a storm – approaches and the shark fins start circling.
It's "Jaws" meets "Dr. Phil." It's an opportunity to eavesdrop on an intimate catastrophe.
Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis) are the quintessential stateside tourists, with no idea of the risks they are taking. They are the last ones to surface because they have left the dive group and have been petting an immense eel. As they wait for rescue, beset by stinging jellyfish, lurking gap-toothed barracuda, and increasingly bold sharks, the situation never quite seems real to them.
"This can't be normal," Susan whines.
As the minutes and hours drag by, the couple float and float. They play word games. They try to remember what the TV shows say you're supposed to do around sharks. They cover all of the ground any of us might cover under the same circumstances. They fight and make up, fight and make up.
"I wanted to go skiing!" she blurts out at one point.
"We asked for an oceanfront view, and we certainly got it," he yells, gesticulating at the endless undulating sea.
It's so realistic it's funny, despite the mix of boredom and danger we feel. Our hearts beat faster as night falls and we see the couple in flashes of lightning, two small heads, some big fins and an infinite, uncaring ocean.
That we know so little about Susan's and Daniel's past and present is both a weakness and a strength. We have no idea what brought them together and what, beyond generic hints at busy schedules and minor personality conflicts, is pulling them apart.
It's weak, because we want to identify with them as individuals. Maybe we want to feel sorrier for them as individuals.
But it is also brilliant, because their squabbles and fears are yours and mine. We all have said the same ugly things, the same selfish things, the same shabby, mean things. We end up liking them because we have been just like them at one point or another.
We end up wanting them to live through this nightmare as much as they do, even though they and we are pretty darn sure they won't live to see the dawn. That's why this is such a wonderful film.
It's based on a true story of a couple who were forgotten by a dive boat off the coast of Australia. And the film (translated to an unnamed Caribbean tourist destination) comes across as real too: Ryan and Travis reportedly spent 120 hours floating in the water in chain-mail-lined wetsuits while the film was being shot, circled by real bull sharks. Seeing their tails splash and their large brown bodies bump against the actors is almost more than you can stand to watch.
But you won't be able to look away either.
"Open Water" was written, directed and produced by Chris Kentis, only his second feature film. He and his wife Laura Lau made the movie using a couple of hand-held digital cameras and just $120,000 of their own money. It has a slightly grainy, home-movie look, but you can tell Kentis is going to be a great director when he gets the money to make a regular film. From the first few frames, the shots are clever and creative. The story unfolds clearly and unrelentlingly.
I won't tell you the ending, which Roger Ebert (who raved about the film) calls "so low-key we almost miss it." I can assure the shark-bite averse that it's not a munch-and-crunch movie.
I would call it a horror film, but not in the sense of stacked-up victims and buckets of blood. It's about our ultimate helplessness in relation to nature, about facing death, about stripping back life to its core, themes that should ring true to any of us who have been through a hurricane or two.
80 minutes, Rated R (brief nudity)
"Open Water" is currently playing at Market Square East. Click here to check schedule.
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