Harrowing, bare-bones account of a couple accidentally abandoned in the middle of the ocean while on a vacation diving excursion, “Open Water” is a tour-de-force thriller that deftly transforms its low-budget limitations into spectacular assets. No special effects gimmickry detracts from the elemental starkness of a man and a woman floating for hours in wet suits surrounded by miles of water and gathering schools of sharks. Pic had the elegant Hamptons crowd squirming on the edge of their seats. Highly effective and chillingly creepy, pic never falters, but its very unsettling realism could either attract or repel younger auds more accustomed to virtual dangers.
Script is based on a real incident, when a resort boat crew made a faulty headcount and overlooked the last two divers to surface. The crew headed back for home, not discovering that the couple was missing for more than 24 hours. Scripter/helmer Chris Kentis (“Grind”) occasionally cuts back to drunken vacationers partying at the resort, while unknown to them the forgotten man and woman float helplessly, vainly awaiting rescue.
The bulk of the drama, however, is played out in the water as Kentis builds the tension slowly. Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis) have obviously been together for quite some time (film opens on scenes of their busy workaholic lifestyles just prior to their oft-deferred island vacation) and, at first, they cling to each other and to the hope of imminent deliverance.
Frantically signaling to passing boats that cannot see them, their isolation grows. As hunger, thirst, cold and fear escalate, they begin to second-guess themselves and their life choices, blaming each other. Then, as exhaustion and hopelessness settle in, they drift, conserving energy, uniting for survival, finally rallying in adrenaline-filled emergency mode to protect and support each other when ocean predators begin to grow bolder.
Under Kentis and Lau’s assured lensing, the sea also transmogrifies, at times shimmering seductively, at other times blood red or a dull exhausted gray. Sometimes fins break through the surface as sharks roil around the divers, but often it is what passes unseen below that registers as truly terrifying.
Kentis masterfully structures his story to center more and more on the strong, anxious, Sigourney Weaver-like face of Ryan. Thesping is superlative but, in real water and with real sharks circling, one wonders how much of the terror and apprehension are attributable to acting.
Tech credits, virtually all by Kentis and wife Lau, look impressive even in Beta (the finished 35mm print was unavailable for premiere playdate).
Working well outside the strictures imposed by special effects or by post-produced proximity, Kentis freely edits his low-tech scenes solely according to their own internal rhythm and logic, adding greatly to pic’s organic feel and to the sense of vast expanses of nature stretching out infinitely beyond the narrative’s fragile framelines.