Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis) have hectic lives.
Even as they're headed out on a much-needed vacation, they're making
last minute business phone calls. They head to a Caribbean island for
sun, fun and their real passion, scuba diving. On their second day they
schedule a spot on a commercial diving trip to a reef, where due to a
head miscount by the tour guide, they end up left behind. How will they
survive in open water?
This is a remarkable film for a number of reasons. It's basically a
"super low budget" independent film, made on free weekends by a husband
and wife writer/director/producer team with little-known actors and a
skeleton crew. It was later picked up by Lion's Gate after a showing at
Sundance in 2004, and went on to earn over $30 million on its US
theatrical release alone. Of course, it doesn't deserve a high rating
for those reasons. There are plenty of super low budget films made with
passion that ended up being terrible, and others, such as The Blair
Witch Project (1999), which made an exorbitant return, but which, for
me at least, didn't work very well.
The triumph of Open Water is that writer/director Chris Kentis
constructed a disarmingly simple film that ends up being incredibly
effective in its goals--to present an intense, thrilling, suspenseful
life or death scenario with horrific implications and subtextual
commentary on appreciating and living life to its fullest, even when
faced with the power and non-judgmental potential brutality of nature.
You can tell that Open Water is unusual from the first frames. Shot
entirely on digital video, Kentis achieves a look that is crisply,
almost otherworldly beautiful and colorful and which at the same time
conveys a stark, voyeuristic glimpse at a "home movie". This atmosphere
helps create an extremely realistic feel, aided by the outstanding
performances of Ryan and Travis as well as Kentis' naturalistic
direction. For example, while heading out on the boat, he has the cast
engaging in small talk, none of which the viewer can quite make
out--just as if you were a passenger watching these events unfold.
Once our protagonists are left behind to fend for themselves in the
open water, the thoroughgoing realism doesn't stop. In fact, Kentis
actually filmed his in the ocean, occasionally surrounded by real, wild
sharks, which were only controlled by a shark wrangler (or "shark
choreographer" as he calls himself) strategically tossing food into the
water to hopefully direct their attention. While trying to survive,
mired in their realistic but horrific situation, Susan and Daniel run
through a plethora of emotions and conversations, all completely
Kentis occasionally relieves the tension by presenting more abstract
images--various shots of water at one point, clouds at another. These
are beautifully filmed and edited, and very simply but effectively
convey volumes about the unthinking ubiquity and power of nature,
juxtaposed with man's place in it, attempting to survive.
Another unusual sequence has our protagonists still struggling as night
and a thunderstorm descend. Long swathes of darkness accompanied only
by frightening audio are occasionally punctuated by lightning flashes,
which show just enough to heighten the sense of impending doom. It's an
amazing moment and a pinnacle of horror film-making, completely
justified and believable, yet terrifying. Kentis also deserves kudos
for the resolution of the film, which is wonderfully poetic and
nihilistic at the same time. Even though the running time of the film
is slightly on the short side, the pacing and unfolding of events seems
perfect; it doesn't feel short at all.
While this is not a film that everyone will appreciate, due to its
extreme uniqueness and the uncompromising nature of the script, it is a
film that anyone serious about film (and especially horror films)
should watch and give a fair chance.