Susan and Daniel (Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis) are your typical work-obsessed couple drifting apart in the American suburbs. But, when left to fend for themselves in tropical, shark-infested waters, they cling to each other so desperately, it’s almost sad and touching. That is, until those fins break the surface again, triggering panic on the screen and setting our nerves on edge. “Open Water” is a textbook example for how to build and sustain tension, develop character and even sneak in wry social commentary over a tightly wound eighty minutes.
Gutsily made by husband-and-wife filmmakers Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, “Open Water” disarms the viewer (à la “The Blair Witch Project”) with its no-frills, home-video ethos, but, make no mistake, this is shrewdly calculative filmmaking. The story is straightforward, opening in Susan and Daniel’s leafy, SUV-appointed home as the cell phone-toting couple pack up for an island vacation, wondering if they’ll still get email where they’re going. In a few deft strokes, the filmmakers establish their couple and whisk them off to their tropical getaway.
Kentis and Lau assuredly develop the couple’s close-knit but none-too-romantic routine, intimately conveyed by actors Ryan and Travis. To soothe away workaday stress, they embark on a deep-sea dive. From the movie’s premise, we know that this is an ill-fated outing, that the couple will be left behind by a bungling boat crew. But we watch anyway, uneasily but riveted, as the movie puts its pieces into place. Then, from their initial petulance at finding themselves abandoned, through their spasms of antagonism, their attempts to cope and overcome and, finally, their realization that all is futile against a menace largely unseen, “Open Water” becomes an expertly modulated horror movie.
Perhaps the greatest irony in “Open Water” is the claustrophobia of its setting. The sea that looks so limitless and wide-open eventually feels so confining, availing the characters with the barest hopes for survival, not least of which is that its predators simply stay away. The water’s lapping and splashing sickens us as much as it does Susan and Daniel, and the predators most definitely do not stay away. Kentis and Lau know that horror can never be fully realized till the lights are out, and they gain maximum fright wattage out of the all-enveloping darkness of night with only flashes of lightning to orient us. At this point, the filmmakers teasingly cross-cut to scenes of island revelry, but the festive music is muted, faraway, thereby punctuating the ever-growing distance between Susan and Daniel and the lives they’ve left behind. It is here that the absolute meaninglessness of the material world, one of comfortable jobs, SUVs and cell phones, is most keenly felt, pitted against the cunning and merciless forces of nature.
Written/Directed by: Chris Kentis
Cast: Blanchard Ryan, Daniel Travis, Saul Stein