Film reviews and more since 2009

Open Water (2003) review

Dir. Chris Kentis

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★½

Part of me and my girlfriend’s 30-movie Halloween marathon.

“The movie is about what a slender thread supports our conviction that our lives have importance and make sense. We need that conviction in order to live at all, and when it is irreversibly taken away from us, what a terrible fate to be left alive to know it.” – Roger Ebert, in his review of Open Water

I saw Open Water when I was around eight-years-old; far too young of an age for such an existential crisis, some might argue. I was something of a needy only-child. I couldn’t imagine being separated from my parents, my mother in particular. Then suddenly, this film I convinced my mother to rent on Pay-Per-View, made me grapple with the unforgivable isolation and helplessness of a true story revolving around a couple who was accidentally left behind at sea, never to be seen again.

Based on the true and devastating story of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, the film begins by showing the busy lives of Daniel (Daniel Travis) and Susan (Blanchard Ryan). Their crowded schedules do not allow them to spend a lot of time together, prompting the two to embark on a scuba diving expedition. Due to an insufficient headcount, the boat leaves with the couple still diving. When Daniel and Susan resurface, they realize the boat on which they traveled is now completely out of side. They are stranded in the middle of sea, with the horizon showing nothing but water in all directions.

Obviously, they’re not alone in these waters. Tiny fish travel around their feet. Occasionally, there’s a jellyfish that prompts some panic. But every now and then, shark fins cut above the water, reminding them they’re not alone. Daniel’s expertise — obtained from watching “Shark Week” — he knows they can’t drink the saltwater, but that knowledge doesn’t stop them from slowly starving and becoming dehydrated. Surely someone will notice they’re gone and come looking for them, right? Their scuba gear assures they’ll remain buoyant, but as the passage of time becomes more vague, the couple becomes bitter and irritable. They might as well be shouting into a void.

Shot on digital video for a less than $500,000 dollars, Open Water‘s comparatively unpleasant aesthetics strengthen the realism of the entire production. Had the film assumed a found footage perspective — as it flirts with in the beginning but ultimately doesn’t commit — one might believe it’s part docudrama. Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis are not polished actors, and that’s no knock on their performances. Writer/director Chris Kentis bravely keeps the couple’s conversations punctuated and believably brief once the reality of the situation washes over them. There’s no attempt made through flowery writing or lengthy monologues to ascribe to the dire, hopeless problem anything other than the clear-and-present calamity at hand.

When Daniel and Susan begin to bicker is when things start to get less terrifying and significantly more upsetting. At one point, Susan evokes the silent treatment, leading Daniel to believe it as her response for blaming him for why the two are stranded in the first place. “We paid to do this,” he exclaims. And he’s sadly correct. They paid a company whom they thought was professionally run to transport them out into the middle of the Great Barrier Reef only for it to result in them both being left alive with literally no ground on which to steady themselves. The glimpses we see of their relationship before the trip doesn’t indicate it was a particularly strong one in the first place. A catastrophic accident like this could break them, but ultimately, they’re all that they have.

Technically considered a survival thriller, Open Water does handle its intense sequences with competence. This is one of the few films of the genre where the sharks actually behave like the animals in real life do so frequently (real sharks were used, and that was a non-negotiable point in searching for the co-leads of the film). The short, often-blurted dialog from Ryan and Travis further doubles down on the commitment to authenticity. Where so many horror movies have you often conjuring up thoughts of what you would do and how you would respond to a given situation, here’s a film that, more or less, puts us in a predicament that has no clear solution. There’s as much captivating about that as there is hopelessness.

NOTE: As of this writing, Open Water is available to stream on Pluto TV and Tubi, free of charge.

Starring: Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis. Directed by: Chris Kentis.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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