Hey, here’s a true story! In fact it feels so true it’ll scare the pants right off of you. Open Water is a movie that hit close to home for me and probably will for all of you too. The protagonists are people whose lives bear eerie resemblance to my own: A younger but not newlywed married couple, still very much in love but living hectic lives. They’re successful, but not overly so. Their interactions have an intense credibility that makes them feel as if they could easily be those between my wife and me, or just about anyone else. Open Water presents a very normal, mostly happy marriage that for once isn’t suffering from some cliché bit of difficulty or artificially plot induced strife. Because they have so many good, relatable things to live for, the movie is all the more gut wrenching when disaster strikes.
Even when the worst happens, Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis) don’t believe they’re in for anything more than an inconvenience. After all, they’re on vacation. Escaping from Daniel’s chaotic job, from Susan’s addiction to her laptop, they’re finally putting their scuba training to use on a Caribbean dive adventure. But they stay out in the water just a little too long, the people on the boat miscount how many divers they have on board, and suddenly Daniel and Susan have been abandoned in the middle of a wide open ocean with no one the wiser. Don’t worry it’s all worked out in a pretty logical and believable fashion. After all, this is somehow supposed to be based on a true story, even the parts with sharks.
Like any of us, they assume everything will be fine. The boat will come back for them. Someone will find them. Won’t they? Daniel struggles to remain level headed and supportive for his wife. Susan struggles with the fading effectiveness of the Dramamine she took before they left the dock. Even hours into their struggle, neither really seems to believe anything bad can happen to them. Yet time drags on, and though to the film’s credit no one ever utters the cliché words, “we’re gonna die out here,” you can see the terror growing in their eyes as they desperately cling to a hope that isn’t even there. Hour after hour they bob around in their life vests like tasty and oversized fishing lures, leaving you the audience expecting at any moment to see them dragged beneath the waves by some unseen terror beneath the sea.
Ryan and Travis are astounding in their respective roles. They have to be since we’re spending an entire movie zoomed in on their faces as they struggle alone in the water. At least Tom Hanks had a wacky beach ball to play off of. These two have no such gimmicky artifice, only each other. Together, their chemistry is fantastic. I finished Open Water wondering if perhaps they were somehow true life husband and wife. Travis is perfect as a caring and antagonistic husband, growing steadily more morose as he begins to realize how powerless he is to protect the person he loves. Ryan is absolutely brilliant as Susan, delivering an Oscar worthy performance as she cracks under pressure, only to rebuild her emotional stability in her husband’s moments of crisis. With only their heads visible above the surface of the water, they work wonders in absurdly limiting conditions.
Writer/Director Chris Kentis does his best to get the most of out their characterizations by keeping the film moving. We may be staring at the same waves over and over again, but he’s always ready with something new, whether it be event or honest and authentic feeling dialogue. Directed in a very simplistic fashion and filmed with the ease and relative cheapness of Digital Video, Open Water’s cost controlled shooting environment at times make the film feel almost like home video footage. Kentis never resorts to any sort of visual effects to trick things up. Reportedly stuck in the water for more than 120 hours, his actors actually swim with bona fide sharks and jellyfish. Kentis is there to capture it with his camera, aiming for extreme intensity through unbelievable reality. He pulls that off in a big way and not just because of the sharks. Open Water is the most intensely unnerving thing you’ll see outside of those car crash videos shown in Driver’s Ed.
Making a movie where 90% of the film is spent watching two people floating alone in the middle of the ocean is a risky proposition. But this mini-budgeted suspense flick accomplishes something almost unbearably horrifying with its consistent tone and disturbingly real characters. Open Water is Jaws on a much more intimate and personal level. Its unflinching, uncompromising approach not only makes you afraid to go in the water, but makes you question all sorts of things about the way you spend whatever amount of time you have left on rock hard earth.