Open Water

Babes in Sharkland: Daniel Travis and Blanchard Ryan take to Open Water (Lionsgate)

Open Water, a new thriller written, directed, and edited by Chris Kentis, engagingly combines domestic strife with shark attacks.

The movie isn’t perfect. The basic premise I found implausible, be as it may inspired by an actual occurrence; the production values and the acting are occasionally amateurish. Yet for these shortcomings, Open Water is consistently well observed. From vivid nature shots to the use of an ocean as a physical presence, the camera work of Kentis and Laura Lau (she photographed the on-land scenes; he filmed the underwater sequences) suggests an assured design that nonetheless supports the movie’s seeming improvisational quirkiness.

More than this, however, Kentis and Lau (who are married to each other) capture the bantering and bickering of a young couple in ways that (mostly) feel authentic.

Open Water introduces us to Susan and Daniel (Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis), an affluent “power couple,” who live together unmarried in a well-appointed suburban home. With their laptops, cell phones, and overall air of yuppie blandness, the corporate twosome might be fixtures at their neighborhood Starbucks.

They travel to an unspecified tropical tourist trap, take in a scuba diving expedition to the deep sea, and in due course are left in the middle of the ocean by an incompetent charter crew. In a motif that recurs almost throughout the movie’s slender 79 minutes, Daniel’s survival skills hail from having passively watched television. He frequently cites sciolistic bits of knowledge gleaned from either The Discovery Channel’s Shark Week or The History Channel. Drifting along with the current for hours, with no immediate rescue apparent, Daniel and Susan discover that life isn’t TV, and that—perhaps harder to accept in an era saturated by “reality” programming—life isn’t even a documentary.

Kentis, who shot his share of the footage using a waterproof digital video camera, achieves some stunning effects. He treats our eyes to a liquid montage of water compositions, entire frames of undulating waves, some rendered deliberately grainy, others strikingly, phosphorescently clear. And he scores this with the mournful droning hum of a male chorus that’s reminiscent of Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s beautifully guttural harmonics.

When I spoke with Kentis, he claimed Dogme 95 as a source of inspiration for his low-budget movie. In spite of this, Open Water surpasses the ascetic Danish creed; it’s far richer, more luxuriant in color and texture.

There’s a haunting, fairy tale aspect to the images of Susan sleeping in the late afternoon sun, supinely floating in her blue diver outfit as her halo of golden blond hair fans out on the waves. She resembles a princess frozen in slumber, awaiting perhaps the awakening kiss of a prince. Unbeknownst to Susan, a pair of silvery, gray reef sharks glide by her prostrate form. It’s an enviable contrast—horror and peace within the same shot—and for me it recalled the ending to Carnival of Souls, the dredging of the lake that brought the drag-racing church organist up from the depths.

While some of the waterlogged exchanges between Susan and Daniel aren’t wholly convincing, the actors and the film itself take quantum leaps forward in an anguished sequence where the couple’s fear yields to rage. In the absence of anyone else out there in the blue, they turn against each other. Travis, in particular, tentative in his earlier line readings, laces his accusations and resentment with an immutable bitterness. The actor and the character have fused, and the way he hints at fighting back tears in wishing he were home, “which right now sounds like heaven to me,” burns with the acridity of live theatre.

And then after the yelling, a moment that chilled my blood more than any shark sighting—Daniel and Susan, having vented their anger, holding onto each other in silence.

As confident as the makers of Open Water are about shark behavior, they are even savvier when it comes to couple behavior. — NPT

August 5, 2004