Not quite a horror film even though it sometimes looks, feels and sounds like one, “Open Water” is better described as a fable about man’s limits when faced with the unforgiving vastness of nature. The imprint this tragic, based on real events story leaves on its captive audience is one of helplessness in front of unbeatable odds, yet it’s also a most unusual love story that’s a reminder of the light that shines within ourselves even at the darkest hours.
The movie begins when Susan and Daniel (Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis) are going on a vacation they say is badly needed. They’re diving enthusiasts, so they’re off to what we can suppose is a Caribbean resort town (although no mention is made of location) and find themselves aboard the Reef Explorer, a small boat taking divers out to sea for their chosen activity.
Now, what happens on the way to the diving site is a story unto itself. The guide takes what seems like 10 seconds to come up with a head count of 20. From what we’re shown, that looks rather generous. But what is truly baffling is that this system wouldn’t cut it for a kindergarten class making a trek to the park across the street. You’d think with that small a boat it’d be easy to actually write down the names and actually check people in and out of the boat, or at least in and out of the water. But a seemingly illiterate crew member badly messes up the updates with a counting method that hasn’t been used since Passe-Partout’s immortal Pruneau learned how to write down telephone numbers.
Anyway, the boat’s methodology for keeping track of what’s going on is a lawsuit waiting to happen, but without it there’d be no movie, for the boat leaves without the couple thinking everybody’s back in, setting the stage for Susan and Daniel’s horrifying predicament, being left stranded in the middle of the ocean.
Written, directed, edited and partially shot by Chris Kentis, “Open Water” is a nifty little piece of work. It takes half of its 80 minutes to set up its man vs. ocean setting, at which point things get implacably serious. When they emerge, the couple thinks the boat is trying to find them, but that hope dies as the minutes and hours pass. They see some ships from afar, but the sheer distance makes swimming towards them unrealistic (there’s one a bit later in the film where I would have tried, but that’s very easy to say). Daniel is initially the one helping Susan stay calm, but the couple starts bickering after he goes into a yelling rage and ends up blaming the trip on her need to get away from her taxing, unspecified job. I guess nothing frays the nerves like circumstances this desperate, but at the same time they’re very much in love. We see that bond quite literally when they’re clutching one another for warmth, support and the deep-rooted need to connect with another human being when confronted by a dwarfing force outside our control.
Fins gliding or tails flapping above the waves jolt you on occasion, but Kentis doesn’t really present the sharks as harbingers of doom, in “Jaws” fashion, as much as he shows them as inescapable realities of the sea. With accelerated cloud shots to signify the passing of time, and tribal chants and island revelry as stylistic touches, Kentis almost tricks you into a false sense of stagnancy until nature unleashes its mighty force with devastating, striking impact in the last minutes.
“Open Water” intelligently uses the contrast of the immensity of the sea and of two individual huddled together to survive in the middle of it. The lovers may be physically drifting in the ocean, but their fate is intertwined, their bond strong and their spirit very much alive. Travis and especially Ryan do a solid job of conveying emotions ranging from faint hope to anger to despair, and there is a painful moment where we vicariously experience the worst kind of sinking feeling the characters must have had when fully realizing what is happening to them. This is a film that hits hard, with a finale of the kind that stays with you for a long time.
Review by Jean-François Tremblay