After sitting through Open Water, a dingy minimalist thriller that was shot on DV and looks it, I joked that if it were shot on film, it would have one redeeming facet. Writing this review on the train home, I realized I was being unfair. After all, if your movie is an exercise in sadism, keeping it under 80 minutes in length should count as a humanitarian gesture.
OK, OK, OK. It’s not that Open Water is unwatchable. It’s sporadically arresting, despite some iffy performances. A couple of fair-haired American tourists venture into some tropical location in order to go scuba diving and molest sea creatures. They tarry too long underwater and their boat leaves without them, leaving them stranded, adrift, hungry and getting colder by the minute. I caught hints that the film might have ideas about criticizing their behavior — at one point, you catch a glimpse of the two of them on the tour boat as it heads out, conversing in isolation while the rest of the sightseers mingle and chat — but what impact it has as narrative relies on an audience’s absolute identification with the two characters on screen. As long as you can imagine yourself out there in the water, shivering and scared, getting leg cramps and pathetically waving your little knife in the general direction of those big honking eating machines, it’s hard not to be shaken.
Where the narrative strategy breaks down is that, once these two realize their predicament, there’s no indication that anything they do will actually affect their fate. Instead of a survival yarn, Open Water is really a broad appeal to the barely sublimated fears of jet-setters everywhere. It’s The Travel Channel: The Horror Movie.
“They made it look like a fun movie,” somebody complained on the way downstairs from the screening, and it’s true that Lion’s Gate is doing a savvy job of promoting Open Water in a way that makes it look like a thriller. But if guy-on-elevator’s complaint is that Open Water isn’t much fun, here’s mine: it’s just not particularly thrilling. Beyond the admittedly gripping high concept, which gets a little stale about 60 minutes in, there’s shaky performances, some semi-coherent editing, a narrative strategy that borders on dishonest (the perspective shifts repeatedly away from our protagonists and back to dry land solely as an audience-manipulation tactic) and a muddy visual approach.
Now, Open Water is clearly some kind of technical accomplishment, and it’s pretty cool that the husband-and-wife filmmaking team of Chris Kentis and Laura Lau pulled a Soderbergh and wrote, directed, shot and edited all this footage — including shots that clearly depict sharks swimming little more than arm’s length from the actors — in camera, without resort to special effects or expensive cinematics. So if it sounds like I’m unfairly bagging an enterprising couple of young filmmakers for shooting the stock they can afford, let me insist that the DV footage, no matter how “real” it might look, finally distances us from the action. Sometimes, it even makes it hard to tell what the fuck is going on. There’s a scene in which Susan and Daniel fall asleep on the water, and thus become separated. Susan wakes up and can’t see her husband, so she starts calling his name. This tense sequence cuts among a variety of camera angles as Susan calls out, and eventually we see a wide shot of the water, featuring an indistinct blob of pixels floating at the center of the screen. Wait — is that what Susan sees, or is it just Susan from a distance? Have we spotted her husband, or are we just seeing her from a distance? Does she see him? Is she swimming toward him? Who knows?
And, dammit, who cares? Except inasmuch as we’re eager to project ourselves up onto the screen, Open Water offers no reasons to care how these people react to their crisis, or what happens to them. The whole movie plays like the opening scene from Jaws, only it’s stretched out to feature length and it’s not nearly as scary. But there is at least one shot that I found rather beautiful, and I’m not sure I can fully express why. It comes after a sequence of much turmoil, and in the calm that follows, Susan is holding her husband close to her, staring out over the water. Blanchard Ryan, who plays Susan, is a good-looking woman, and we’ve already seen her naked earlier in the film, in a scene that played almost like a weird sop to the exploitation crowd — but what we see here is more revealing. Her face is contemplative, pained and sadly beautiful. Ryan’s scene is a moment where Open Water really takes the time to assess and express the destruction that’s already been wrought on the minds and spirits of its characters. It’s a striking shot, but then it’s gone, and the film resumes what seems more and more like a doggedly cynical march toward a grim finish that aims only to put homo sapiens in its place — which is fine if that’s the sort of thing that gets you off. Think of it as a porn movie for people who got a woody from When Animals Attack.