How much difference can the efforts of one actor make to the success of a movie? Not much, right? At least, that’s what you would think. However, The Shallows proves that a single great performance can elevate an otherwise mediocre film.
The Shallows is a thriller/horror film directed by Jaume Collet-Serra whose previous movies include Orphan and Run All Night. Those movies weren’t masterpieces and The Shallows isn’t one either. It is a film about a young woman (Blake Lively) who, while on a soul-searching trip, finds herself in a life and death struggle with a man-eating shark. It is a simple film that achieves simple goals in simple ways. That said, thanks almost entirely to the lead actor, the experience is still a memorable one.
Less Talking, More Biting
However, that’s not thanks to the narrative as story-wise, The Shallows is a very basic movie; Woman battles nature and finds herself. Mr. Collett-Serra has tried to add depth to his thriller flick by adding in a subplot involving the heroine’s struggle to come to terms with her mother’s death, but the film would have been better without it.
The reason for this is that in order to build this inner struggle the filmmakers have included a number of scenes at each end of the movie that do nothing but waste time. Did you know that you have to fight through life’s struggles? Did you realize that technology keeps us from really connecting with the ones we love? Did you know that you should stay in medical school and not drop out to party with your friends? Those are the kind of insights that The Shallows treats as meaningful.
But, as they usually do in these types of thrillers, these musings only get in the way. Did you really care about what the protagonists were going through in Jeepers Creepers or Final Destination? Of course not. All that mattered was whether they survived or not, and how. That’s what The Shallows forgets; that the audience is there to see a woman fight a shark, not her existential despair.
Setting has No Character
The entire movie takes place at a secluded beach that doesn’t have much personality.At the start, the locale is treated as a mythical getaway spot, but it never comes across as anything more than another beach, the kind you can see on a million postcards. And later, as the film ratchets up the sense of dread, the placid setting undermines the action. With its white sands and crystal clear waters The Shallows’ setting is simply far too picturesque to seem dangerous. It’s not until a storm rolls in during the last act that the beach becomes a place of wonder. During the storm, the sky is slate gray and the waters rough and opaque and it is the only time in the film when the heroine really seems to be stranded.
The antagonist in the movie is, of course, the man-eating shark. Unlike the shark in Jaws this predator never really develops a sense of identity. It’s big and vicious but never menacing. This is because there is very little build up before it attacks. In other, better, thriller films there are many scenes in which the predators stalk their victims. These scenes are integral to making the monster grow in the mind of the audience. Without them, the monster is not a character that exists fully in the world of the movie, but just a plot device. That is the fate of the shark in The Shallows.
Blake Lively is the Real Deal
Although she does not have a reputation as a great actor and is known mostly for being pretty and starring in the lowbrow Gossip Girl series, Ms. Lively is the person most responsible for the success of the film. The minimalist plot would have lost me at many times if not for Ms. Lively’s engaging presence. The mediocre script and direction would have dragged down a lesser actor, but Ms. Lively delivers a performance that makes that mediocrity irrelevant. When she needs to be endearing, she is. When she needs to be tough, she is. When she needs to vulnerable, she is. And she does all these things while only having a seagull to play off of. The seagull, christened Steven, performs admirably, by the way.
The Shallows is a straightforward thriller movie that provides an enjoyable experience. The bulk of that enjoyment is the result of Blake Lively’s great performance. She grabs the viewer and pulls you through the bland setting, story, and execution. Ms. Lively may not have the accolades that her more celebrated peers do, but with The Shallows, she proves that she has just as much skill.
Was The Shallows really any good? Did Blake Lively save the whole damn movie? Or did I just have stars in my eyes? Let me know in the comments.