Friday 8 April 2011

The Reef (2010)

One of the films I return to again and again is Steven Spielberg's monumental JAWS (1975).  It's perhaps the first film I can remember being conscious of - aware that it existed, that there was something special about it, that it was about a terrifying monster, that it was so frightening that chidlren weren't allowed to see.  I was even aware that it was based on a book.  So in a lot of ways, JAWS was a formative moment in the development of my love for films because it taught me that films could be an event, that they could be really good, that they could tell fantastic stories, that they were classified according to their content and even that they could be adapted from books.  Of course it wasn't until several years later that I actually got round to seeing it but the wait just made it more special.  I talked before about tracking down a rare film only to be disappointed; there was no chance of that with JAWS simply because it is so brilliantly made.  You may argue as to its artistic merit but in terms of what it set out to do - frighten the piss out of millions of people - it was, and still is, absolutely flawless.

It's something of a double-edged sword in that respect because on the one hand it set me off on a path of loving the creature feature but on the other hand it set the bar so high that all subsequent films on a similar theme are doomed to be inferior.  That's not say all subsequent films are poor, because they demonstrably are not.  There have been some really excellent films that followed in the wake of JAWS, so to speak, but by their very nature they must be compared to the beast that spawned them all.  But for every PIRANHA (1978) there is an ORCA (1977); for every ALLIGATOR (1980) there is a CROCODILE (2000); for every LAKE PLACID (1999) there is a, well, LAKE PLACID 2 (2007).  So it is with a real sense of occasion that I am able to declare Andrew Traucki's 2010 feature film THE REEF to be the best shark movie since JAWS.

It is an Australian movie which, in my opinion, continues the tradition of films from that country which betray a deep rooted fear of the land and, in this case, the waters that surround it.  It stars a number of actors whom I understand are well known in Australia but to me, at any rate, were completely unfamiliar.  Which helped enormously because the film's strength is that it is rooted in the every day: there are no abnormally large sharks, no salty sea dogs with a dark past and no aquaphobic New York cops.  The tension and fear comes from realising that a series of entirely credible minor accidents can put you in a position where you are in danger of being eaten alive.  The fact that the characters are Australian also roots the film in the everyday: somehow you take them to be less histrionic, more down to earth and less voluble than, for instance, Americans might be.  What that gives you is a sense that if they seem worried it's probably for a damn good reason.

A long way from anywhere
I liked the fact that characters behaved sensibly, took the right decisions, changed their minds and essentially acted as you or I might act.  They generally defer to the natural leader of the group and in the one case where they didn't, the dispute was worked through calmly and settled amicably.  It's so refreshing to see movie characters behave that way because 99% of the time they don't.  Which is because 99% of the time the characters are being driven by the plot rather than the other way around.  There is only one instance of a moment which I felt to be overtly Hollywood but it's a minor quibble.

"What was that?"
The photography is excellent and in a sense outdoes JAWS in conveying the remorseless expanse of the ocean.  In JAWS you are aware that the heroes are more or less within sight of land the whole time but in THE REEF the heroes are mere specks in a vastness that literally stretches as far as they can see, in every direction.  The acting is very good too with Damian Walshe-Howling probably getting man of the match for his turn as Luke, the de facto leader.  He is pulls off the neat trick of appearing brave and terrified at the same time.
You never know what's beyond the next swell ...
I was really impressed with it.  The director's previous feature BLACK WATER (2007) told a very similar story about a crocodile and was very good too but THE REEF tops it for me.  I would say that after a 20 minute setup, there follows 60 minutes of the most tense and genuinely frightening cinema that I have seen for a very long time.  If over the last 35 years you had actually come to think it is now safe to go back in the water this will make you change your mind.

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