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The Shallows, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, is a taut, focused thriller that may not break new ground when it comes to killer shark movies, but is proof enough that they still have plenty of bite.
Medical student Nancy Adams (Blake Lively) goes surfing on a secluded beach in Mexico, the same beach that her mother surfed at many years ago after she found out she was pregnant. Nancy is at a turning point in her life and hopes that going to that beach might help her in some way. Unfortunately, something sinister lurks in those waters and Nancy soon finds herself in a battle of survival against one of nature’s deadliest predators – the great white shark.
The Shallows is smart enough to understand two very important things. One, killer sharks are best used sparingly. The last thing you’d want is for the audience to start to get comfortable with their presence on screen. One of the most horrifying deaths in the movie happens entirely off-screen – the movie shows us Nancy reaction to the attack, but we never see it for ourselves. The Shallows gives you just enough of the shark to get you scared and then lets your imagination fill in the blanks and keep you that way.
Two, the movie make it impossible to root for the killer. There are too many dumb, ill-advised horror movies with characters that are either thinly written, not memorable, impossible to sympathize with or all of the above. If this is a story about survival, then you better make damn sure people are gonna be rooting for the main character to survive. Nancy is smart and resourceful, but vulnerable in a real way, thanks to a solid performance by Blake Lively. The Shallows spends a good amount of time early on in order to properly introduce her and once the shark shows up, that certainly pays off.
At a brisk 86 minutes, the movie takes a minimalist approach that is well suited for this type of story. It hits the beats it should, sustains tension throughout (even delivering a few excellent jump scares) and does not overstay its welcome. The climax gets more than a little silly, but by then, the movie mostly earns the extra suspension of disbelief – like the over-the-top final encounter in Jaws, you just want to see that shark get its just desserts. Some of the dialogue early are clunky, but it serves its purpose without being too distracting.
The Shallows also makes ample use of its gorgeous scenery, which retains its sense of beauty and wonder even with the uneasy threat of a great white lurking just beneath the surface. Scenes of intense graphic violence, like the shark itself, are used sparingly to good effect.
This is a movie that’s not particularly interested in redefining survival thrillers, or killer shark movies in particular. It reaches for a familiar bag of tricks, but with a confidence and sleight of hand that makes for a very intense and effective viewing experience.