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The Fin Blue Line: Susan and Daniel swim with the sharks in 'Open Water.'

Blair Shark Project

Sharks circle a squabbling, alienated couple in 'Open Water'--who ya gonna root for?

By Richard von Busack

CONSIDERING its subject matter, the ultra-low-budget thriller Open Water ought to—but doesn't—put a knot in your stomach that would take years to unravel. Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis) are hanging on in a fast-paced world. Whether they're married or not depends on your interpretation of the few scenes of their life together. This couple seems alienated. However, just as it's said that everyone owns a photo of themselves that makes them looks like a serial killer, every couple spends some time silent and ornery. We're not sure whether we're watching Susan and Daniel during a distracted, burned-out patch. They are working hard right up to the gates of the airport on their way to a less-than-enchanting tropical destination.

Although he shot Open Water in the Bahamas, director/writer/editor Chris Kentis is quite clever in obscuring exactly where this package-deal paradise is located, using a soundtrack of mixed tropical music—some Veracruzan harp, some Caribbean rhythms, some Hawaiian and Polynesian vocals. The crowded harbor could be anywhere. The tourist gimcrack (whoa, a beer mug shaped like a tit!) could be fouling any former fisherman's wharf. After a sleepless, sexless night—half of which was spent searching for that one hidden mosquito—Susan and Daniel board a charter boat for a scuba-diving trip. They paddle and gaze at the moray eels. Meanwhile, an obnoxious New Yorker who stupidly forgot his goggles turns out to be the agent of fate. There's a miscount of heads, and Daniel and Susan are left behind for a day and a night on the open sea.

Stinging jellyfish and hungry, inquisitive sharks menace them. They float through a lightning storm, and boats pass by—tantalizingly close but too far away to see them. They're worn by dehydration, hunger, nausea from motion sickness, and—probably worst of all—some really serious spatting. It's Samuel Beckett meets Jaws—existential torment on the open seas where these two people have only each other in a hostile environment. The independence of this independent movie is that Susan and Daniel don't particularly get along during the ordeal. At various points, each blames the other for their plight. Their submerged dislike bobs to the surface, as when Susan overreacts to Daniel peeing in the water. "Disgusting!" she cries.

At such moments, you'd almost think that Kentis wants us to not feel too bad for this couple. Sharks are an endangered species; North American tourists aren't. But between the indifferent acting and the bleary, digitized horizons, you can't draw a bead on where the director's coming from. You miss the stark beauty and depth a John Boorman or a Nicolas Roeg could have extracted from this aqueous ordeal. Open Water is effective enough to cast a pall over many a snorkeling expedition to Molokini. But on the level of acting, directing and cinematography, it's only an adequate treatment of a horrific situation.

Open Water (R; 79 min.), written and directed by Chris Kentis, photographed by Laura Lau and Kentis and starring Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the August 4-10, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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