Director: Chris Kentis
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Most people who want a good scare at the movies turn to the horror genre. Psychopathic killers, ghouls, and demons can throw a decent fright into average moviegoers without putting them off their popcorn and soda or ruining the rest of their evening. Movies like Open Water will not please these people. It throws a deep, primal scare into moviegoers that will make them feel as vulnerable in this big, wild world as our premodern ancestors used to feel on a routine basis. And it does it in an unlikely manner—by showing two people bobbing up to their necks in water for most of its length.
The premise is simple enough. An attractive yuppie couple leave their hectic, everyday life for a vacation in the Caribbean. They go scuba diving the morning after they arrive. A mistake made by a crewman aboard the dive boat causes them to be stranded in the ocean. The remaining hour of this 79-minute movie is spent dealing with their ordeal on the open water.
I am a snorkeler, not a scuba diver, but I did take a scuba diving course and have been on a dive boat in the Caribbean. I can vouch for the authenticity of every detail of this movie, from the asshole diver who inadvertently causes the counting error that leaves Susan and Daniel stranded, to the comical instructions the dive master gives on deck before the dive, to the logic Daniel uses in determining how they should behave to optimize their chances of being rescued. The script, though minimal, makes perfect use of the obvious knowledge director/writer Chris Kentis has of diving.
Exposure to the elements, hunger, and dehydration are all enemies to Susan and Daniel. But, naturally, it’s the sharks that really steal the show. Susan and Daniel drift on the strong ocean current into the proverbial “shark-infested” waters. Of course, oceans are no more shark-infested than cities are human-infested. Sharks live there, and they school just like other fish do. They just happen to be in the area into which the couple floats. It is an impressive sight to see so many sharks in one place, and an impressive filmic feat to integrate them so effectively into the narrative of the film. They are terrifying just by doing what they normally do—investigating foreign objects with a quick nip or bump and swishing those impressive tails of theirs.
There is a great irony that a film set in the boundless ocean can be so claustrophobic. Part of that effect is achieved by the awesome DV camerawork of Kentis and Laura Lau. They use extreme close-ups of the actors to suggest mood and thought, simultaneously keeping us feeling boxed in. The proximity of the sharks to the actors leaves us feeling as hemmed in as they must have felt—any move could be fatal. They cling to each other like scared children in a cave. One scene in which both of them fall asleep, lose their grip on each other, and drift apart is terrifying.
Music is used sparingly, but effectively. It is not the heavy-handed stuff that propelled Jaws, but rather barely-there Caribbean rhythms that suggest the beauty of the ocean and its creatures to which Susan and Daniel looked for restoration, as well as the uncontrolled essence of nature. The film also is masterfully paced. Just when the tension is greatest for the audience, Daniel howls into the air and starts swearing in a perfectly timed and modulated tantrum. Susan, also at the breaking point, decides to show her annoyance by giving him the silent treatment. Imagine the silliness of a marital spat under these circumstances. Yet the blaming and arguing are so real, so what anyone would do, and provide both the characters and the audience with a much-needed release of tension.
Can actors with only their voices, faces, hands, and arms to use in their performance knock one out of the ball park? Absolutely. Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis are utterly convincing as a normally in-control, intelligent couple who take reasonable risks in their lives and end up in a life-and-death situation through no fault of their own. It’s very Hitchcockian in that sense, but the nature of the jeopardy they are in is far more realistic than anything Hitchcock ever gave us. This film scared me like no Hitchcock film ever did.
I strongly suggest to anyone who wants to feel the full force of this movie that they refrain from pausing the DVD player during the film. Susan and Daniel couldn’t escape, and it’s their helplessness in the face of nature that makes this film the primordial experience it was meant to be.