Open Water (Chris Kentis, 2003)

“Honey, I hate to tell you this, but swim or not, we’re going where the current decides.”

From cradle to grave, chance exerts a dramatic influence over our lives, however much we pretend to have control of our own destiny. It’s frightening to think that just a moment of dumb luck can, without warning, irrevocably derail a lifetime’s worth of striving. Such thoughts are best put in the back of the mind, but some films bring them front and center and force us to dwell upon them. Psycho is one such film. If not for the ill-timed appearance of a heavy rainstorm, Marion would not have turned off the wrong exit and ended up in the shower of room #1 of the Bates motel. Irreversible is another. If Alex had not left the party unexpectedly early without her boyfriend she would not have met her sadistic rapist in the alleyway. Open Water is a third. If the married couple, Susan and Daniel, hadn’t made last-minute changes to their vacation plans due to circumstances beyond their control (or, for that matter, if the crew of their expedition boat hadn’t botched the headcount) they would not have found themselves stranded without food or water in the middle of shark-infested waters. Marion, Alex, and Susan and Daniel were victimized by the vagaries of chance – just as any one of us could be at any moment. “Swim or not, we’re going where the current decides,” Daniel rightly tells Susan, not appreciating that his words carry a deeper meaning beyond the current situation.

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Open Water begins uneventfully, with Susan and David going about their banal, everyday activities before embarking on that ill-fated scuba diving expedition. They drive their car, talk on their cell phones, work on their laptops, brush their teeth, snuggle in bed, etc, blissfully unaware that they will shortly come face to face with the callous indifference of nature. This contrast between their ordinary day-to-day existence and the unimaginable horror that befalls them shrinks the gulf between “civilization” and “nature”, reminding us that no matter how insulated we think we are from nature, in truth, we are, always have been, and always will be merely a part of nature, and its potential victim. From the relatively secure vantage point of “civilization” we sometimes forget that the natural world is brutal, dangerous, deadly and utterly unconcerned with human well-being. Susan and Daniel are about to be reminded.

Shot entirely on the open sea using hand-held digital photography, natural lighting, and actual backdrops, Open Water drips with authenticity. Nothing in the film is computer generated, including the sharks – real wild sharks in their natural habitat pressed into moviemaking service with strategically tossed chum, much to the unease of the actors who were performing without the protection of a cage. None of the sharks, it’s probably safe to say, was nicknamed “Bruce.”

The film’s visual realism is matched by its behavioral plausibility. Credible dialogue, believable situations, and convincing performances by unknowns Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis ensure there’s never a moment that doesn’t ring completely true, never a moment when we doubt that this is precisely how these people would behave as their ordeal steadily progresses from mild annoyance to abject terror.

At first, Susan and Daniel aren’t too concerned about getting left behind. A bit perturbed, sure, but they’re confident that the boat will eventually turn around and pick them up. It’s too early to think the unthinkable, and so the conversation is mundane, even a little lighthearted.

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Susan: Daniel, did you just pee?
Daniel: Yep
Susan: You’re so disgusting!
Daniel: You said you were a little cold.

But as morning turns to early afternoon their situation grows more worrisome, especially after the first shark sighting – a glimpse of what looks like a fin pops up out of the undulating waterline. But it disappears back under the water again so quickly they aren’t sure what it was.

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Susan: Daniel, was that a shark?
Daniel: I don’t know. I think it was a dolphin.
Susan: No, it wasn’t a dolphin, because if it was you’d be over there playing with it.

As the hours pass the grim reality of their situation sinks in. There’s no sign of help. They have nothing to eat or drink. They’re getting colder by the minute. The ocean, which just a few hours earlier had seemed like a harmless source of fun and adventure, turns against them, becoming a vast and unforgiving death trap utterly indifferent to their fate. Worst of all, the shark sightings get frequent and decidedly unambiguous.

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Susan: What kind [of sharks] are they?
Daniel: Big ones.
Susan (clinging to Daniel): Are they gone? Oh God, I don’t know what’s worse, seeing them or not seeing them.
Daniel: Seeing them.

Emotions soon get the better of them. Feeling frustrated and helpless, Daniel lets loose with a primal scream, cursing not the fates but “those incompetent fuckers” who left them in the middle of nowhere. Susan, meanwhile, retreats into an incommunicative shell and gives Daniel the “silent treatment.”

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Daniel: So, now we’ve entered the no talking phase, huh? Could you maybe answer one last question: has this somehow over the hours become my fault?
Susan: Let’s just drop it.

Of course, Daniel can’t drop it and before long they start casting blame on each other, proving that petty husband and wife spats persist even in life-and-death situations:

Daniel: You believe what you wanna believe, but I know for certain that we were in the right spot.
Susan : It’s not just a matter of being in the right spot, it’s being there on time.
Daniel : We were on time!
Susan: Do we always have to cut it so close. For God’s sake, would it kill us for just once to stay with the group? We always have to do everything differently than everyone else. God, we shouldn’t have spent so much time with that goddamn eel!

Daniel: Do you have any idea how idiotic that sounds?
Susan: Oh, so now I’m an idiot?

Susan: We are where we are, aren’t we?
Daniel : Yes, because of me.

Susan: You refused to swim. My God, there were boats all around us and you refused. And, now look around us, we’re stuck in the middle of the ocean with nobody!

Daniel: The only reason we are even out here in the first place is because of your fucking job. If it were not for your job, we would not have thrown our plans out the window, rushed around at the last minute and settled on this fucking trip!

Susan gets the last word, as is her woman’s prerogative.

Susan: I wanted to go skiing!

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Nature doesn’t give a fuck whose fault it was, which is why the tiff doesn’t last long. Soon Susan and Daniel are clinging to each other again. They can’t afford to drift apart, literally or figuratively. On land they’d be having makeup sex. Here they can only offer declarations of love and empty reassurances:

Susan: I love you
Daniel: I love you. We’re gonna be fine.

The sharks are unmoved by these touching sentiments, and when one of them takes a big chunk out of Daniel’s leg it’s clear that the loving couple is a long way from being fine. The situation, in fact, turns dire. Daniel used to watch “Shark Week” on the Discovery Channel, but learning about shark attacks from the comfort and security of his living room hasn’t prepared him for this firsthand experience, and not surprisingly he reacts with horrified disbelief.

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Daniel: This can’t be happening. How can this be happening? I think I’m bitten by a shark! [The overhead shot of blood pooling around the couple removes all doubt]. We can actually be eaten alive by sharks out here. My God!!

Now it’s Susan’s turn to offer false reassurances.

Susan: It’s not that bad. You’re gonna be fine, okay? Shhhhh. You’re gonna have a nice scar to show your friends and that’s it.

Reality begs to differ. And reality is never wrong. Reality never lies.

There’s no hope for Susan and David. Blind chance brought them here; pitiless nature finishes them off.

As Daniel’s lifeblood drains out of him the conditions are set for one of the most horrifying scenes of modern cinema:

The sun disappears behind the horizon. A storm gathers. Thunder rumbles. Intermittent flashes of lightning supply the only illumination in the pitch black night. Exhausted and cold, bleeding and alone, the terrified couple drifts aimlessly in the vast, unforgiving ocean with nowhere safe to turn, ravenous sharks circling them. In a last, futile bid for deliverance, Daniel recites the Lord’s Prayer:

Daniel: Our Father, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done…

As if mocking his pleas, the heavens respond with an ear-splitting crash of thunder. A flash of lighting reveals the monsters of the deep. Hell below them, above them only sky.

Susan: Oh, God, please.

Not even Jaws reaches such sheer existential dread. By morning it’s all over. Traumatized beyond repair, Susan clings to Daniel’s corpse, then gently kisses him and lets him go. In seconds his body is consumed by sharks in a feeding freezing. Resigned to her fate Susan submerges herself – she prefers drowning to being eaten alive. The ocean swallows her and she’s gone, joining Daniel in a watery grave. The beautiful blue sea keeps rolling along as if nothing horrific has happened. The heavens peer down mutely. The sun shines on indifferently. It is, after all, just another insignificant episode in the never-ending story of earthly suffering.

2 Responses to “Open Water (Chris Kentis, 2003)”

  1. I don’t think I want to see this one!

  2. This is a well-written and powerful essay!