“Where the Buoys Are”
One way of understanding The Shallows, an excellent new thriller, is to place it in dialogue with 1975’s Jaws, Steven Spielberg’s quintessential shark attack movie. In Jaume Collet-Serra’s new film, a medical student, Nancy (Blake Lively) travels alone to the Pacific coast of Mexico to go surfing after the traumatic death of her mother from cancer. After surfing one last wave late in the afternoon, she is bitten in the leg by a great white shark feeding off of a whale carcass just off the shore. Nancy struggles to a coral reef which only surfaces at low tide. She spends the night shivering, but in temporary safety atop the small island. When the tide comes in the next day, she swims under the cover of jellyfish to a buoy a few dozen yards away. Using a flare gun found there as a weapon, Nancy has her final confrontation with the shark.
In numerous ways, The Shallows converts the patriarchal logic of Jaws into a feminist text. In her excellent essay, a foundational text of feminist film criticism, “Jaws as Patriarchal Myth,” Jane Caputi observes that Jaws served as an early film backlash against the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s. On Amity Island, off the coast of New England, a girl, Chrissie (Susan Backlinie) strips off her clothes, pursued by a drunken islander at a nighttime beach party. As the man lies incapacitated on the shore, a great white shark kills Chrissie next to a loudly clanking buoy. After more shark attacks on the July 4th weekend, Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) assembles a team of men to go kill the shark. At the film’s first turning point, Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary), the chief’s wife, is forced to run away from the boat dock, crying, as the salty boat captain, Quint (Robert Shaw), sings out endless sexism: “here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged women” and “for fifteen years she kept her virginity; not a bad record for this vicinity.” Later, when Mrs. Brody attempts to speak to her husband on the boat, Quint smashes the radio, isolating the men in their manly battle with the castrating shark.
Jaws features a perfectly rhymed first act, with the sexually active Chrissie running into the water to get eaten by the shark at the onset, and Mrs. Brody running away from the water as her husband enters it to make amends. Chrissie is the prototype of the modern horror film victim, a nubile young woman, always chosen by the monster because of her immoral sexual activity. Furthermore, Jaws shifts genres at the moment Mrs. Brody runs away: once Spielberg has banished all of his women characters, it becomes a war film, with a platoon consisting of Quint, the grizzled sergeant; Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), the technically-savvy lieutenant; and Chief Brody, the green new recruit who will become battle-hardened through the course of the film and win the day by the end.
The Shallows inverts these sexist clichés. While women are banished by Spielberg’s film, Collet-Serra’s camera never leaves Nancy’s side. While the eternal feminine of Jaws’ ocean enacts Quint’s castration, Anthony Jaswinski’s script emphasizes the fecundity of the sea. Nancy has come to this particular beach in honor of her dead mother, who visited while she was pregnant with Nancy. Nancy points out to Carlos (Oscar Jaenada), a kindly father who has driven her to the beach from her hotel, that the islands off shore form the shape of a pregnant woman lying on her back: head, breasts, and protruding belly. Later in the film, these islands will obscure Nancy’s signal flare from the line of sight of a passing freighter, rendering inevitable Nancy’s final confrontation with the shark on the buoy. The pregnant islands associated with her mother demand that Nancy kill the shark and come to terms with her loss, invalidating her felt need to quit medical school.
At one plot point after another, The Shallows re-works Jaws’ imagery. While Nancy is on the coral reef, a drunken Mexican man wanders onto the shore. At first, Nancy screams in hopes that he will rescue her. However, he turns out not to be interested in her well-being, pocketing the valuables from her backpack on the shore. The man’s undoing is his greed: he sees Nancy’s surfboard bobbing in the ocean. When he wades in to retrieve the valuable item, the shark does him in. Thus, The Shallows keeps the moral framework of Jaws: both Chrissie and the Mexican man are killed for their violations of the proper code of behavior. However, The Shallows redeems the sexism of Jaws: the shark does not kill Nancy, Collet-Serra’s version of Chrissie. Instead, he eats the drunken man, who in Jaws lay safe on the beach.
The Shallows is a film about empathy, a value in sparse supply in Jaws. In my favorite shot of Collet-Serra’s film, two Mexican men with whom Nancy had surfed the day before return to the beach. Nancy’s desperate screams for them not to enter the water go unheard. As the shark attacks them, the camera refuses to replicate Jaws’ money shot, the severing of human flesh (for example, a young boy’s leg sinks to the bottom of an ocean after one attack). Instead, in a long take, in close-up on Blake Lively’s face, we sit in agony as we watch Nancy realize that she can do nothing to help the men; Collet-Serra refuses to cut to the reverse shot, denying us the gruesome images she is forced to witness.
In short, despite the recurrence of Jaws’ buoy, next to which a great white shark punishes Chrissie for wanting to have sex, The Shallows is a film about a girl. Indeed, the buoy’s function in The Shallows is not to clang passively while women are murdered, but to serve as the safe metallic armor that enables Nancy to overcome the rapaciousness of the shark. If only that were the true function of boys in 2016 America.
Caputi, Jane, “Jaws as Patriarchal Myth.” Journal of Popular Film. 6.4 .