On movie magic, the interchangeability of performer and character, and The Shallows' failure to convincingly put its star in harm's way
The Shallows Columbia Pictures
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Screenplay: Anthony Jaswinski
Starring: Blake Lively, Óscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen and Sedona Legge
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 26 minutes
June 24, 2016
(out of four)
Blake Lively is not really in the ocean. Blake Lively is not really surfing. Blake Lively is not actually bleeding from a shark bite. Blake Lively is not suturing her own wound from that shark bite. Blake Lively is not stuck on a buoy, or a rock, or a whale carcass.
Intellectually, we know this. In practice, we have to be convinced.
The Shallows is about a woman stranded - alone, cold, injured and bleeding - in the middle of the shark-infested (but otherwise idyllic!) waters of a secluded Mexican beach. But if I didn't know any better, I'd assume it was trying to convince us how little danger she's actually in. How else to explain (beyond plain old shoddy workmanship) a film that consistently goes out of its way to undermine the entire point of its existence? What it's selling us on is this person's physical jeopardy - the vulnerability of her body against external forces. That fact alone makes the credibility of the illusion paramount. But to go further: In a solo survival movie like this, performer and character are inseparable. By their nature, they isolate the actor almost completely, so that any extraneous character details - that her name is Nancy, that she's in medical school, that she loves her pretend dad and pretend sister very much - quickly fall away, except insofar as one or another might momentarily become plot-relevant. The Shallows is, for all intents and purposes, a movie about Blake Lively trying to survive in the ocean, all alone and against all odds. Just as Cast Away was about Tom Hanks surviving on an island, and Gravity was about Sandra Bullock surviving in space.
And yet the sheer number of shots of Blake Lively in which Blake Lively's face is deliberately not visible is staggering. She should have shared top billing with her body doubles, stunt doubles, CGI doubles and stand-ins. See? this movie is almost telling us. She's not so alone after all. Look at all those people working together to escape that shark.
To be clear: This is how movies work. I'm not denying the prevalence nor the importance of all the people who physically contribute to film performances. But we're not supposed to be aware of it, at least not consciously. Even with the allowances we make for artifice, it's not supposed to be in our face - especially not when the movie is entirely reliant on our believing the artifice. The Shallows' job is to keep us convinced this person is in danger; but practically speaking, we are constantly made aware of the fact that Blake Lively is in no danger at all. We get constant shots of the back of her head, or the top of her head, or her butt, or full body shots in which her face is very carefully obscured. Or, when the character is surfing, we get a CGI version of her face that looks like it was created by an overzealous octogenarian church parishioner. It's all so blatant it's practically meta, only by accident.
I was reminded of Black Swan, which requires, among other things, Natalie Portman's protagonist to execute ballet performances of extraordinary skill. Portman trained to do as much as she convincingly could, the rest of the heavy lifting was done by a world-class professional, and everything was composited together virtually seamlessly. The movie relies heavily on its ability to pull off the dance sequences, and the cinematic trickery done to make it work is rarely, if ever, noticeable - a near-perfect union of separate individual efforts, combined to create one singular physical performance.
For the record, The Shallows had a higher budget than did Black Swan - $4 million higher, a hefty percentage for a movie of this scale - and can't pull off nearly the same effect as it tries to blend Lively's work with everyone else's. It's all scotch-taped together; the seams and flaws are sticking out all over the place. Whether it comes down to what she was (or was not) willing to do, or what director Jaume Collet-Serra asked her to do, or what her agent allowed her to do, or any other budgetary or logistical reasons, the film relies first and foremost on an illusion that it's glaringly unable to create. At times it comes uncomfortably close to the great diner fight scene in Keenen Ivory Wayans' I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, in which Wayans' mom is quite blatantly replaced by a mustachioed stuntman while beating up a pair of gangsters.
Even aside from the scenes that necessarily require specialists and technical workarounds, the film still finds ways to de-emphasize Lively's physical importance, undercutting its own point. Consider the scene in which Nancy has to stitch herself up after suffering a shark bite to her leg. Collet-Serra gives us rotating close-ups of Lively's face and the injured leg, over and over, from the same two angles. Cut to face, cut to leg, cut to face, cut to leg. The sequence is supposed to highlight the difficulty of what the character is doing - the agony she's experiencing and the courage it takes to suture her own wound and stop the bleeding - but each edit only reinforces that she is not actually, physically, doing what we're meant to believe she's doing. The scene repeatedly emphasizes the separation of the two - separating performer/character from physical act - to the point that face and leg become completely disembodied, almost abstractions. I cannot emphasize enough how useful a wide shot of Lively performing the self-surgery would have been here. Instead, we get an editing structure that's not only jarring but destructive to the intent of this would-be tense moment. It's reminiscent of the great closing-credit sequence in DePalma's Body Double, in which an actress gives way to her nude double for a shower scene, and then we watch it play out in back-and-forth shots - from the shoulders up, then from the shoulders down. Shoulders up, shoulders down. Face, breasts, face, breasts. It's a hilarious scene precisely because of the obviousness of the separation between the fictional actress and her fictional double in this movie-within-the-movie. The self-surgery scene in The Shallows is shot in essentially the exact same fashion, but its transparency is unintentional.
Similarly conceived scenes from other films only further expose the sheer unimaginativeness of Collet-Serra's approach. Two that spring immediately to mind are No Country for Old Men and Ronin. In both cases, the filmmakers employ close-ups just like Collet-Serra does, but in their cases to maximal effect. In the former, during which Anton Chigurh cleans, disinfects, sews and dresses his own gunshot wound, the Coens detail it all with cool precision. Each shot matters. Each image - simultaneously evocative and narratively functional - tells us something different, and they never repeat themselves.
John Frankenheimer's approach - during a Ronin scene in which Robert DeNiro has to instruct Jean Reno step-by-step in extracting a bullet from his own body - is radically different but equally effective. His establishing shot uses a powerful close-up within a wider frame - DeNiro's agonized visage framed tight in a small mirror, facing the main action as his punctured body is operated upon. His physical anguish and the difficulty of the task at hand are both exceptionally palpable; Frankenheimer's use of tilted angles - in conjunction with the mirror image and the placement of the two central characters - conflates their bodies in a way that anxiously underscores the naked physicality of the moment and the life-or-death stakes of what we're seeing.
(Another great recent example, and one with a very different conceit than those other two, is a self-surgery scene in the season-two finale of The Knick. Soderbergh shoots directly at the character in static medium shots, using long takes, so that we're watching him from the waste up the entire time, his actions uninterrupted.)
And then there's this film's approach. Face, leg, face, leg. Needle goes in, reaction shot. Needle comes out, reaction shot. It gets the idea across, I suppose, but woof. It's a disappointment from Collet-Serra, who has previously been able to inject much more imagination into B-grade material like this. He still does some fine work - there's a no-nonsense, rat-a-tat-tat rhythm to the film's early scenes once Nancy arrives on the beach, all utilitarian matter-of-factness as she dresses, or preps her surfboard, or solves a problem. The way he gracefully brings in the peaceful ambience of the location in his sound design offers the scenario a quietly foreboding tone. And ever one for a potent violent image, he has two stunners - one a wide shot in the ocean, the other a beautifully grotesque moment on the beach - that evoke the more viscerally effective movie this should have been.
Alas, the film too often works against itself. The shark, for example. With the exception of I believe two shots, its appearances are ineffective. I never thought a persistently hovering shark fin could be so dull. It looks like the filmmakers spliced actual footage of sharks - either shot separately or lifted from existing documentary footage - into the film, basically reverse-engineering those scenes around that footage. That's certainly better than relying too much on what might have been (if the CGI waves and CGI Blake are any indication) a shoddy digital version, but it also likely limits what Collet-Serra can do with the shark.
But the problems here begin and end with Blake Lively - or, more accurately, with how the film uses (and doesn't use) Blake Lively. If you'll forgive another comparison (with a movie that does so poorly what other films have done so well, it's essential to consider), look at J.C. Chandor's All is Lost, a solo survival story with a similar setting as this one. So much of that film's success rested on the physical nature of Robert Redford's nearly wordless performance. Surely there were doubles and visual manipulations peppered throughout, but everything the Redford character has to do or endure - down to the minutiae - is made explicitly clear. The Shallows can't claim the same. It goes out of its way to idealize Nancy (rarely has a movie character been this blemish-free, and thus uninteresting; she's cartoonishly good-hearted, to the extent that the film pauses her survival story so she can save birds with broken wings), which, now that I think of it, is right in line with the way it refuses to truly challenge her, or the actress playing her. Instead, it so thoroughly flaunts its own cinematic cracks and safeguards that it all but completely torpedoes the verisimilitude that is, or should have been, the central prerequisite.