Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Reef (2010)

Director: Andrew Traucki
Writer: Andrew Traucki, James M. Vernon
Genre: Shark Horror
Genetic Links : Jaws, Open Water, Black Water

Luke (Damian Walshe-Howling): Captain of the boat, Kate's "on a break" boyfriend
Matt (Gyton Grantley): Luke's friend, Kate's brother, Suzie's boyfriend.
Suzie (Adrienne Pickering): Matt's girlfriend.
Kate (Zoe Naylor): Luke's "on a break" girlfiend, Matt's sister
Warren (Kieran Darcy-Smith): Luke's first mate

Five people are stranded in the middle of the ocean when their boat is overturned. One remains on the sinking vessel, while the rest choose to swim through shark infested waters in hopes of reaching a distant island. Based on a true story.

The Ramble
If fear is the oldest of all emotions, then it is almost certain the first emotion ever felt was a fear of being eaten. Humans have eliminated the cause of this fear from our daily lives, but the primal terror still lurks within us. The Reef effectively taps into this fear as we helplessly watch a quartet of people who are on the wrong end of the food chain.

The Reef is the latest film by Australian director Andrew Traucki, who previously gave us the similarly themed Black Water. Both films center on a small, tight knit group trapped in an aquatic wilderness, stalked by a hungry predator. As a fan of this subgenre, I would rate both films as among its finest entries.

The film moves quickly, with the entire cast introduced in ten minutes, and the boat capsized before another ten have passed. The remaining hour is one of the most harrowing I can recall. Where Jaws kept the audience on edge with an ominous score and shots from the shark's point of view, The Reef builds suspense by keeping the audience in the dark. Traucki largely sticks to the characters' POV, so we are just as paranoid as the protagonists. In a stroke of brilliance, Traucki equips Luke with a pair of goggles, allowing us glimpses of the briny deep, indistinct shapes flitting on the edge of perception.  When the shark does arrive, it dances on the periphery, fading in and out of the blue. If the shark breaks the surface is it for just a moment - there are no lingering shots of a dorsal fin knifing through the water. Jaws conditioned us to link the shark with the musical cue - we knew when to be nervous, and when to relax. When we do see the shark, it is (seemingly) a real animal, captured in its native habitat, often placed (digitally?) in the same frame as the characters.
"You look like a seal in that. Sharks love seals."
The film plays fair with its monster - the shark (or sharks - one hysterical charatcer insists it is the same shark following them, but she lacks credibility) is frighteningly mundane. Yes it is a great white (white pointer in Australia), which I found sadly cliched (how about an oceanic whitetip?), but it is not of record proportions or keenly intelligent. It is an animal and acts as sharks act, curiously investingating a potential food source before moving in for the kill. This naturalism continues through the end - there is no grand royale, the final showdown between man and beast.
"Hey guys? Not so much splashing..."
Traucki is adept at shooting landscapes, and the everpresent expanse of ocean constantly reminds the viewer of the hopeless scenario the characters are in. Early on in the film, a snorkeler gazes over the edge of the reef into the deep blue abyss. The message is clear - this is not her world, and she does not want to be part of it.

One other thing The Reef shares with Black Water is that each film treats death seriously, and neither ignores the emotional toll on the survivors. Both films keep the cast confined to a few characters connected by blood or romance, and as a result the surviving characters cannot ignore their losses. As the deaths mount, you can see the burden is getting harder to bear.

Though the film has an R rating, don't expect to see much viscera on the screen. As one would expect, the injuries inflicted on our characters remain unseen below the water, though the sea does tinge red after an attack (and there is one particularly effective shot of a blood trail disappearing into the abyss). There are no imaginative kills to be found here, and those looking for thrills would be better served by Deep Blue Sea or Piranha 3D.
To say (as some have) that this is the best shark film since Jaws is overselling it, simply because the competition is so damn thin. I do feel the film is hamstrung by its paper thin characters - again the action starts about 20 minutes into the film, and by that time only 2 of the five characters have had any substantive dialogue. You don't have to be a horror veteran to figure out who the first to go will be (though, to its credit, it did have me guessing as to which, if any, of the four would make it out alive). The film worked for me because I could put myself in that situation, ask what I would do, wonder if I would have the stamina to make it (I wouldn't), but if you need deep characterization to care whether or not Suzie is eaten by a shark, the film may not have the same impact. For me, the weak characterization is The Reef's most notable black mark, but the harrowing final hour more than makes up for it.

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