Open Water
Director: Chris Kentis. Cast: Daniel Travis, Blanchard Ryan, Saul Stein, Michael E. Williamson, Estelle Lau. Screenplay: Chris Kentis.

Open Water is a canny use of the cinema, an act of exploitative genius but of no other kind. Which is fine, I suppose. Really, Open Water's view of film is approximate to its view of the ocean: the movie taps beautifully into certain dreads and anxieties that underpin our notions of both, but does so in a way that precludes any detailed or sophisticated sense of what either of them are or how they work. The actual movie that writer-director-editor-cinematographer Chris Kentis and producer-cinematographer Laura Lau have made doesn't really need sophistication or precision to work. Open Water is nerve-wracking and occasionally affecting, though as with the similarly scaled and executed Blair Witch Project, I suspect that audiences will be about evenly split among those who are thrilled by the movie and those who grouse that nothing much happens.

Both factions have a point, and regarding Open Water, I'm not sure whom to side with. Last time was much easier. The Witch folks had me at boo, and the film still creeps me out exquisitely, even on repeated viewings in my fully-lit living room. Craft, not just Jungian nightmares, is necessary to achieve that kind of reaction, over and over. Cannily packaging its own amateurism as a formal principle of their film, the Blair Witch directors, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, fashioned a tight, economical chiller that drew on three fears all at once: that of not seeing what you want to see, that of not knowing where you are, and most subliminally, that of headstrong women. Just watching how Josh and Michael increasingly turn Heather into the villain of the piece, a blame-shift reproduced by lots of audience members, reverberated nicely with the mythic demonization of women that fueled the Blair Witch legend itself. More importantly, Blair Witch was shot and edited, even at its cheapster level, with ghoulish precision. Despite the obvious mediations of the "found footage" conceit and the blended images from different cameras, the piece still works as a unified experience, and you forget the whole idea of directors, light-rigs, and boom mikes mere minutes into the movie, all the way through to its shattering conclusion.

Open Water, which may never emerge from the Blair Witch shadow, lacks the wit of the earlier film and has a much more pedestrian set-up. Daniel (Daniel Travis) and Susan (Blanchard Ryan) are pretty much your standard post-Y2K yuppie couple, beautiful in dull Eddie Bauer ways, wielding cell phones like life support, their romantic bond barely concealing a jealous mutual estrangement. In short, they're a little boring, and though this says nothing about the artistry of the film, or even about the actors' abilities, I disliked both characters immediately. Disappointed by the sheer obviousness of the prologue—how soon that laptop will be a distant memory! how soon you all better re-learn to get along!—I frankly couldn't wait to hustle these two into harm's way. The requisite dramatic device by which the film explains Daniel and Susan's eventual predicament, when their hired boat mistakenly abandons them during a scuba expedition, is a little bit clever but a whole lot tendentious. The staff on that boat would have to fail to count a) heads, b) empty seats, and c) their own expensive equipment for this plot point to make sense, and because Open Water works best as a kind of elemental horror story, very little is gained from any prolonged exposition. The best thing in the sequence is also the most irritating, since an actor called Saul Stein is forced to do a floridly grating impersonation of fussily Type-A machismo. Ironically, so much is made of his arrogance and reckless haste that you don't expect him to become the total red herring he in fact turns out to be. (Look, Ma, a fish metaphor!)

I don't want to overestimate these particular flaws. Open Water is never boring, and the movie is clearly rigged to live or die by its handling of the main plot, when Daniel and Susan, floating in the wet middle of nowhere, start to gather that their situation is even worse than they thought. At the same time, it's a lot of slack to cut a 79-minute movie when, almost half an hour in, you feel like it hasn't started yet. And here's the bad news: the worst is yet to come, because even after the sharks are circling and the daggers are out, the film isn't done padding itself. Why are we cutting away to shots of other people enjoying the faraway beach, toes in the water, cabanas full of partiers, revels being reveled? Why on earth is erratic composer Graeme Ravell (The Crow) scoring long underwater sequence shots with acoustic guitar, before moving on to choral hymns and aboriginal chants? The passing of the hours is handled at times with pedestrian literalism, marked by up-to-the-minute time signatures even when the characters have no idea what time it is; in other instances, Kentis and Lau opt for minute-long montages of sunsets, clouds, and waves, dyed and edited into near-twins of the Saul Bass credit sequence from Scorsese's Cape Fear. Most damningly, the most basic dissonances of light levels, stock qualities, and continuity details, even in a movie with precious few specs to keep straight, keep us from forgetting that this is a spliced, artificial reality, a composite of multiple takes and technical interventions. One of Open Water's most powerful moments comes when a shark takes a warning nip out of one of the characters, but in the split-second cut from the overhead shot, with blood tinting the water all around our panicked protagonists, to the two-shot at eye level that looks quite as blue as ever, our disbelief rushes back in like high tide. Open Water seems unable to stave off even these simple threats to visual and structural credibility, and rather than edit around these gaffes, Kentis seems only to have called further attention to them in his cutting.

And yet... And yet... Open Water is still a pretty tasty morsel of summer movie-going. This concept is a pretty sturdy one, and by using real sharks—streamlined, medium-sized ones, at that—the movie still puts over a scarifying concept that stays within the realm of the worrisomely plausible. Sure, the unfortunate montage doesn't help, but within single shots, especially when neither we nor the characters can quite tell if that was a wave or a dorsal fin, the movie has more than enough power to stay afloat. Unexpectedly, too, the actors both grow more appealing the minute they're stranded. I did start to wince during the inevitable (and inevitably improvised) temper tantrums that comprise one big phase of their distress, but whether intentionally or not, there's a laughable, almost parodic quality to their recriminations that will surely be Edward Albee's favorite part of the movie. "If only we hadn't had to spend so much time with that fucking eel!" Susan screams, by way of implying that Daniel made them late for their boat rendezvous; if that doesn't go down as the year's best passive-aggressive lover's tiff, I don't know what will. (Another pout from Susan, "I wanted to go skiing," is comparably priceless, given the context.) Having survived this unpredictable detour into dark farce, Open Water turns out to have even more new tones and surprises up its wetsuit sleeve, and despite never kicking his bad structural habits, Kentis' concluding passages reveal unguessed levels of filmmaking mettle.

Do I ever expect to hear from Chris Kentis and Laura Lau again, or for that matter, from Daniel Travis and Blanchard Ryan? Not really, though Ryan sadly/sportingly endures a nude scene that feels unwholesomely like an audition. Would I get in line for another Kentis/Lau production? Not necessarily, especially since their greatest talent seems to have lain in identifying an untried high-concept that proved feasible even on the most frugal possible budget. Smart business people, semi-foolish filmmakers. The only real future Open Water holds out to them and their over-the-counter filming equipment is a Shyamalan-ish destiny of repeated formulas with diminishing returns: Open Sky with condors circling a wayward hot-air balloon, Open Sand with a scorpion battalion, Open Icefield with a Yeti just out of frame. Kentis and Lau may not yet have thought of these, though Hollywood will if Open Water turns the expected profit. (At a budget of less than $500,000, they're guaranteed of a healthy personal cut, not to mention a nod in that Do-It-Yourself category of the Independent Spirit Awards.) All of this means that Open Water has hit upon a rare recipe for milking a formidably corporatized medium and riding audience fears of the deep all the way to the bank. Whether it means any more than that—as in, whether Open Water truly amounts to a good film—is an undecidable and almost irrelevant question. The best answer, I guess, is that it's good enough. B–

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