Reality is in, and not just on network TV. In indie filmmaking, too, there has been a shift away from the Tarantino- and Coens-influenced comic experimentalism of the 1990s toward simpler narratives told with a minimum of cinematic trickery. The most extreme example of the trend was the Dogme movement, co-sponsored by Lars von Trier, which goofily pledged to "counter the film of illusion." But in more sensible doses this same impulse to put authenticity above artifice has led to the production of thoughtful, intimate films such as You Can Count on Me and Maria Full of Grace.
Open Water, released on video last week, is an unusual example of the genre, pairing the techniques of indie minimalism--small cast, limited locations, handheld camera--with a subject that could hardly be more Hollywood: two people stranded in the middle of the ocean with a pack of hungry sharks. The unfortunates in question are Susan and Daniel, a thirtysomething couple who have arranged a short-notice scuba vacation as a respite from their stressful jobs. In the opening scenes, as they leave home and arrive at their (unnamed) tropical destination, the two bicker about work, about sex, about the quality of their hotel room. The next morning, they board a scuba boat with 18 other tourists for their fateful trip. (Can anyone say "three-hour tour"?) When they reach the dive site, Susan and Daniel go into the water along with the others. But due to a tragic chain of coincidences--a diver who forgot his mask, a botched head count--when they resurface, their boat is gone. They can't swim back to shore (even if they knew what direction it lay in) because the surface current is too strong. And although they see the occasional boat in the distance, their increasingly frantic arm waving goes unnoticed. (Why they never try shouting--sound, after all, can carry quite a distance over water--is never explained.) So they wait uncertainly for a rescue that may or may not come, alternately blaming and consoling one another for their predicament.
The first shark appears after they've been in the water a couple of hours. And while it leaves harmlessly soon enough, its visit alters what had been essentially a castaway movie into something far more ominous. Susan and Daniel encounter other hardships in their subsequent hours afloat--a lack of food, a surfeit of jellyfish--but from that first encounter Open Water is all about the sharks. Sleek and silent, they arrive and depart singly and in groups, sometimes aggressive, sometimes merely curious. Thanks to the hidden depths beneath Susan and Daniel's feet, the sharks are a palpable presence throughout, even when there may not be any nearby. For the last half hour of the film we are aware that a fatal strike could come at any instant--or not at all. "I don't know what's worse, seeing them or not seeing them," Susan remarks at one point. "Seeing them," Daniel replies. It's a matter of opinion.
Writer-director Chris Kentis famously filmed Open Water using real sharks, and his decision represents a kind of reverse technological breakthrough in the mechanics of terror. There's no mistaking the genuineness of the dark fins and thrashing tails that break the ocean's surface, of the single shark that glides under Susan at one point or the many that roil the waters later on. These scenes are frightening in a way that could never have been matched with rubber models or digital effects. (Among other anxieties, one fears for the safety of the actors themselves.) Although the film contains relatively little on-screen bloodshed, its violence, both real and anticipated, is more harrowing than that of any cinematic gore-fest.
But for all its power, the use of live sharks is basically a gimmick, and apart from that gimmick Open Water turns out to be rather shallow. The first 40 minutes of the film are spent setting up the central predicament, and they do so with methodical efficiency. Susan and Daniel are presented as recognizable types, but neither comes fully to life as an individual. The scenes on the scuba boat, which engineer the couple's stranding at sea, capture perhaps a little too well the fact that, apart from the dive itself, a scuba trip is the height of tedium. Even once Susan and Daniel are in the water, the time between shark encounters lags noticeably. The exchanges that Kentis has supplied for his actors feel familiar bordering on generic: The two play Six Degrees of John Malkovich; he tells her what he's learned from watching "Shark Week"; she blames him for their plight (she wanted to go skiing); he blames her (they changed their original plans to accommodate her work exhaustion); they tell one another "I love you." More gifted or charismatic performers might have been able to transcend this material, but relative newcomers Blanchard Ryan (Susan) and Daniel Travis (Daniel) succumb to it.
To some degree, Open Water is the victim of its own bid for authenticity. Apart from the sharks, which are authentically terrifying, the film feels altogether too much like a video of someone else's vacation. It's a useful reminder that one of the rationales for fiction is that ordinary people are often uninteresting, even when they find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. There's very little to Susan and Daniel, at least that we see: no hidden passions or fears, no secrets, no lies. With one (somewhat dubious) exception at the end of the film, neither character ever says or does anything particularly surprising or clever or brave. Indeed, the film's premise all but prohibits them from doing anything: They can't swim to shore or fight the sharks off, and Kentis won't allow them some fantastic, movieland escape like building a raft out of kelp or turning their scuba tanks into jet engines. From early on it's pretty clear that they will either be rescued or be eaten, and which one will be largely a matter of chance.
There's something more than a little morbid about watching Susan and Daniel drift along helplessly, wondering if and when they will become chum. The truth is that even though Open Water was marketed as something of an art film, it ultimately feeds the same appetite for shock and revulsion as a conventional horror movie. Indeed, in its documentary look and insistence that it is "based on true events" (though it's clear that many or most of the details were invented), there's even a whiff of those gruesome Faces of Death compilations of real-life deaths and dismemberments. Open Water cleverly avoids the exploitation label that affixes to either of those genres, being simultaneously realistic enough not to be lumped in with slasher/zombie fare and fictionalized enough that it is not profiting from actual corpses. But don't be fooled. Like the marine predators that are the film's true stars, Open Water is at heart a primitive, single-minded killing machine.
The Home Movies List: Hollywood at Sea
Jaws (1975). Hokey as its effects look today, the Mother of All Shark Movies is no less engrossing than it was 30 years ago. There's more writing, more acting, and more genuine horror in Robert Shaw's three-and-a-half-minute U.S.S. Indianopolis monologue than there is in all of Open Water.
The Deep (1977). Anyone wondering whether Jaws was Spielberg's triumph or author Peter Benchley's got their answer with this Benchley-penned, Peter Yates-directed followup. Everything sinks to the bottom except a repeat appearance by the great Shaw.
The Hunt for Red October (1990). The best Tom Clancy film we've had to date and likely ever will, though it's hard to say whether it is despite or because of Sean Connery's Russian-brogue scene chewing. Also a reminder of how quickly Alec Baldwin went from talented newcomer to premature has-been to likably self-parodying character actor. At just 46, he has plenty of time for another metamorphosis.
Pirates of the Carribean (2003). Utter schlock, but of a far more entertaining caliber than 95 percent of what the studios churn out. Johnny Depp's decision to use Keith Richards as the model for his dazed, oddly fey swashbuckler resulted in that rarest of Hollywood species: an original.
Master and Commander (2003). Necessarily compresses and simplifies material from the magnificent historical novels by Patrick O'Brian, but captures their spirit better than any but the most niggling fan could have hoped. Now all we need is a 20- (40? 80?) part series from the BBC.
This post originally appeared at TNR.com.