According to IMDb, Jaume Collet-Serra’s over-before-you-know-it The Shallows runs for one hour and 27 minutes — a number that produces a reaction something like when an NBA roster lists a short-looking player at five-foot-nine and you marvel, Really? Nate Robinson is that tall? The shark thriller has only three or four characters who even justify the inclusion of first names. (Last names? Forget it.) There are just three songs listed in the end credits, one of them a relaxing cover of “Walk on the Wild Side” by Albert Pla that plays in a Chevy Silverado as a friendly local (Óscar Jaenada) drives heroine Nancy (Blake Lively) to a secluded Mexican beach with a secret name.
Even more so than Collet-Serra’s agile collaborations with Liam Neeson (Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night), The Shallows is all forward motion with little-to-no filler — a get-in-and-get-out number that hits its marks and, thanks to Collet-Serra’s stylistic ingenuity, boasts knockout moments that no other director would have thought to stage in the same way. There’s a particularly cruel and squeamish sequence in which Nancy — marooned on a rock a couple hundred yards from shore, her carefree surfing rudely cut short by the arrival of a great white shark — sees potential salvation in a beefy man lying on the shore.
Introduced passed out next to an empty bottle, he wakes up to Nancy’s pleas and, rather than heeding her call for help, starts ransacking her belongings. He dives in to grab her board, and Nancy, a virtuous heroine, frantically warns him away. He either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care. Once the shark makes its move, Collet-Serra holds the camera on Lively, letting her hand-over-mouth gag reflex tell the offscreen story. Then the director cuts — fiendishly — to a shot of the man’s face grimacing on shore, the bottom half of his body stripped apart and lingering in the far background.
That so sadistic a sequence is possible in a PG-13 movie is testament to Collet-Serra’s resourcefulness — The Shallows transcends its formulaic plotting when the director takes the gloves off and gets a little disgusting. Nancy’s knowledge of the human anatomy (she’s a jaded med-school student thinking about dropping out) inspires her to attempt and accomplish survival miracles that would make an average person pass out. After the shark injures her — a severe gash to the left thigh — she wastes little time before using her necklace and earrings to concoct makeshift stitches. She talks herself through the procedure as if she were soothing a patient; Collet-Serra includes several close-ups of the wound, showing Nancy’s hands navigating puddles of blood to put the gold sutures in place. When it’s done, she cuts up the sleeves of her wetsuit to bandage the area.
This kind of relentless, fast-paced decision-making can be freeing for an actor, and if The Shallows can be said to produce any revelations — “Sharks are scary” and “Blake Lively looks good in an orange bikini” are things you know going in — it’s that Lively can easily carry a movie all by herself. In previous high-profile projects like Ben Affleck’s The Town, in which she plays the ex-flame of the Affleck character, Lively has struggled a bit, pouring too much weight into roles when a lighter touch would do just fine. In The Shallows, she has her pick of emotional crises to overplay, but she’s so responsive to the physical parameters of the scenario that she just takes the assignment beat-by-beat. There’s hardly a minute where her character isn’t thinking through or formulating some sort of plan or scanning the horizon for new information; as a result, Lively is equally present in every moment, toting the story along without a hitch.
Though a notch more disposable than Collet-Serra’s other movies — including the emotionally raw, Vera Farmiga–starring Orphan, another strong example of female-led horror — The Shallows contains plenty of instances of the director’s pet tics. Charming text-message bubbles like the ones that animate Non-Stop surface here, as does onscreen text communicating information from Nancy’s stopwatch (“5 hours to low tide”) and the pop-up virtual likenesses of Nancy’s family as she sees them on an early video call from the shore. (Sedona Legge plays her younger sister; Brett Cullen, her father.)
There’s also one of the director’s signature, digitally assisted traveling takes, which here tracks the blow-by-blow development of Nancy’s first run-in with the shark. The shot dips above and below the water with violent glee, frequently changing speeds to emphasize, in slow-motion, Nancy’s collisions with the spiky ocean floor. The take climaxes underwater, pausing as the blood from Nancy’s wound slowly fills the screen. Though the character’s chances at survival are never really in question, shots like these still put you through the wringer.