The Reef

Maybe you should swim?
Andrew Traucki
Damian Walshe-Howling, Zoe Naylor, Gyton Grantley, Adrienne Pickering
The Setup: 
Group has to swim for land with a shark in the water.

I had heard this was pretty good, but it sounds so similar to Open Water, and I hated Open Water so, so much. They both concern people in open water with a shark, and are little indie movies making a lot out of a tiny budget. The lesson this movie teaches us, however, is that you can do a lot on a tiny budget if you have good writing and characters.

We open with four young Australians in a car, driving out to the shore for a vacation. They are Suzie and her sister Kate, who is a dead ringer for Diane Lane. Suzie has a boyfriend in loserish Matt, and Matt has a friend in sexy little mongoose Luke. Yeah, mongoose. I don't know why. Anyway, for a movie in which the two female leads look almost identical and the two male leads look almost identical (excepting one being a loser and the other a sexy mongoose), it's surprisingly easy to tell them all apart.

They meet a guy who owns a ship, Warren, and they all take off for fun, sun and adventure! First stop is an island, where we discover that Kate and Luke has a history together, and that he is a hot kisser, but she's not sure! Kate, honey, snap it up. Anyway, Warren yells a sudden warning for them to return to the ship, which amps the suspense up. On the way back, they discover that their inflatable dinghy has a leak. They make it back to the ship, where they learn that the ship struck something, but not much more than that. I was into the way the movie created a very ominous moment out of something seemingly unrelated to sharks, that casts a nice pall over the happy proceedings. We've started to notice that things on the ship are not exactly maintained in tip-top shape, and that Warren, who we knew was a stoner dude, is seeming more and more like a guy not exactly equipped to face a serious trial. Or a trial. Or too much inconvenience, either.

But the characters have more sailing fun, in the gorgeous weather and blue ocean, and Kate smartly let's down her guard toward Luke, and Luke goes into the cabin and, BOOM, it's underwater. It was a very effective crash, and a smart way to show it on a budget, but under normal circumstances, a ship FILLS with water, not is suddenly full of it. Luke swims out and finds that they've capsized, and they all get onto the bottom of the boat. They hit the bottom, or a rock or something, and that bottom fin thing was sheared clear off, and the hull cracked, and goddamn that boat is a piece of shit. This is the first movie of this type I've seen that smartly makes something of the not-entirely-reliable guide with faulty equipment. Well, except for Uri in Chernobyl Diaries. Have you seen that? So good. If you want to watch this you should probably watch that.

Anyway, the long and the short of it is: they're fucked. They are drifting out to sea, away from shipping lanes. They have a distress beacon, but it's weak and they are not in a flight path, so no planes will pick it up. And they have meager food and water, and no shelter from the baking sun. So it's a sad time. Luke thinks the island is ten or twelve miles that way, although too far to see, and their best/only hope for survival is to swim for it. They put on wetsuits, not sure why, despite that Warren tells them that, in the eyes of a shark, it'll make them look like fat, juicy seals smothered in a tangy chili-lime glaze and stuffed with delicious Alaska crab meat. Well, there's a lot of tough decisions to make. After some hugger-mugger about who's going and who's staying, they all go, except Warren, who ominously says "I'm not getting in that water."

Now, sadly, is when the quite clever setup with many appreciated added grace notes stops, and despite the promise of shark attacks to come, the movie starts getting a bit tired and repetitive, and you start getting annoyed at the characters. Although I will give it props for getting through sixty of its ninety minutes shark-free and with me riveted.

They swim. Luke has shown himself as not just another sexy mongoose and hot kisser, but the man you want to be with, both in tragedy and bedroom, by keeping his cool and methodically risking himself to gather supplies for the others. Never too late, Kate, tell him you've got an egg in the oven that needs basting. They go for a while, and the movie gets good suspense out of having them start to freak over the least little splash, and starts that they saw something, while it's hard to see anything above the surface. Luke has a face mask, and ducks under frequently (then more and more frequently) to look around below.

Then--they see something! They think it's a dead turtle! Hey, I know--why don't you swim right to it? Sure you're concerned about sharks, but swimming right up to a rotting carcass is probably totally fine. Matt is quite curious (told you he was a loser), turns it over and... why, it's a rotting carcass! Well I'll be. I honestly thought someone might have picked up the dead turtle, cleaned and sanitized its shell to nautical-store cleanliness, and dumped it back in the middle of the ocean! So it really came as such a shock. Now me, when I'm worried about sharks, I try to swim AWAY from any rotting carcasses I find, but you know, I'm over-cautious. I don't live out loud.

Now comes one of the best sections of the movie, which is the menace created by several skittering fish breaking the surface around them. I don't know how they did that one (maybe literally just splashing water, we don't see any actual fish), but it works, as the implication is that the fish are fleeing some danger. Luke looks underwater and--the other really good touch--the shark gradually emerges from the blank expanse of blue. So--they panic. They all hyperventilate and freak out and stay there until they can get their wits to swim some more. By this time both the boat and the island are not in sight, and now they're fucked-fucked, not just fucked.

During the panic, Suzie's float board has drifted off, so Matt--you know what I think about him--swims off by himself to get it. Guess what happens? He gets hit, and tells everyone to stay away, because he's lost a leg. Well, you know where everyone just HAS to swim. Right there to say a few last words to Matt and also to hang out right in his cloud of blood. You know, it makes such a difference that you can RESPECT these people. They're so smart. Anyway, this causes Suzie to freak, and she has a few choice words for Luke and his decision for them all to swim. Then night falls, and they all just hang in the water.

Well, there's got to be a morning after. They wake, and see--the island! They start swimming for it. Then--the shark! Every time they see the shark, or think they see something, they panic, and just hang out motionless for a while, and Luke looks around underwater, as though that's going to help. It becomes quite tedious, and you start to reflect on exactly HOW MUCH of this movie is made up of shots scanning around underwater, or shots scanning the blank surface, or shots of Luke looking around underwater. And any interesting character information has stopped, and there's really nothing left to this movie except them swimming, panicking, looking around, repeat.

Susie gets it next, and once again, the survivors think it'll be a good thing to hang out for a while with her gushing blood all around them. It's not like I'm a hard-hearted person who would abandon my friends once they've lost a limb, are gushing blood, and it's only a matter of time before they're snarfed. I would wave from a respectful distance. You don't want to crowd them, you know. And I would shout to them, from across the hundreds of feet of water between us, to ascertain whether they had any last words I could relay to their loved ones. So you see, it's quite possible to be a good person AND not swim directly into a pool of blood to uselessly comfort someone who is only so much dead meat anyway. Although they might, if they're a good friend, use the last few moments in which they possess limbs to offer you any money they might have.

Well anyway, now it's just Kate and Luke, finally getting some alone time. It's not incorrect to say their love blossoms, although its more of a you're-probably-the-last-human-being-I'm-going-to-see-in-this-life kind of love, and less of a he-took-me-for-ribs-and-then-we-watched-the-fireworks kind of love. But who's to say which is better. Anyway, the island is RIGHT THERE, yet, every time they think they see a little shadow, stop, panic, and Luke looks around underwater. Personally, I think it might benefit them to SWIM at this point. Then they actually see the shark. So they PANIC. And sit. And Luke looks around. Meanwhile, you might be shouting at the screen "Fucking SWIM!" like I was. One of them makes it, and sits having issues of some kind while the other is trying to get up out of the water, with no help from the first. Although frankly, the second could have looked for a way up for themselves, as the first has never shown a particular degree of helpfulness. It all reads as a little false and contrived, despite this being a "true story" which ends with a title describing what happened to the survivor.

Well, not bad, and I have to give them points, a lot of points, for making so much of the first hour, those very clever scenes of introducing a pall of menace before anything really bad has happened, and introducing it without any foreshadowing about sharks. And it all just finds ways to be involving and clever and menacing without going the (too) obvious route. But it shoots itself in the foot for the last twenty minutes, as we start losing respect for our characters--because they're acting like idiots and making the worst possible decisions--and the movie just starts getting repetitive. Maybe if they'd added some interest late in the game, maybe if Suzie had revealed that she slept with Matt before while she's having her freak out, interest might have resumed. But I think the writer/director just thought that once the shark starts attacking, that's all you need. It goes a long way, that's for sure, but... if only the last third of this film had been as good as the beginning.

Should you watch it: 

No need to make a special effort, but if you need some shark terror and you're in a pinch, you could do worse.