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.