Open Water, Mean Creek, and Without a Paddle (review)

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Worse Things Happen at Sea

I knew the sketchiest outline of what Open Water was about before I went into it: A young couple goes scuba diving in the middle of the ocean and get left behind when the boat heads back to shore. And the whole movie is just them stranded out there. How scary could it be, anyway, a movie about people floating around in water? Sure, there’ll be sharks, and that’ll be good for about ten minutes of boo!s… and then what? Yeah, the movie’s only 79 minutes, but still… This can’t possibly work, can it?
But it does. It’s not Jaws, not a nonstop roller coaster thrill ride kind of movie — you won’t be jumping out of your seat or tucking your legs up under you so they don’t get eaten by whatever it is that lives in the murky mysteriousness of a multiplex floor. It is surprisingly suspenseful, refreshingly clean and simple, with a hard edge of realism that is quietly horrifying. You leave the movie shaken and yet also rejuvenated to see that not all movies have been taken over by overpaid, undertalented megastars and CGI run amuck, that someone still cares about things like mood and tension.

And then — and this is the really insidious thing about Open Water — weeks later you’ll still lying awake at 3:43am, staring up at the dark ceiling, unable to sleep because, Holy crap, the ocean is big and the world is so huge that there are still places for people to get lost in it and I am so tiny and meaningless and fragile and oh my god I cannot get this movie out of my head. It’s the kind of thing that makes you understand why people start religions, cuz aren’t we all just floating lost in a big scary ocean huddling together for warmth and comfort with no land and no rescue in sight?

That’s not to say that the film isn’t riveting while you’re watching it. There’s a haunting authenticity in how writer/director Chris Kentis keeps his camera down at the water level, so you’re right there with Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis), bobbing in the ocean all by themselves, getting stung by jellyfish and nudged by sharks. And as the film unfolds you really do start to share in their cycle of emotions — initial panic, then calm, then blame (“I wanted to go skiing!” she screams), then terror, then, most haunting of all, calm again — and if nothing much seems to happen, well, there’s a kind of horror in the nothingness. And the dread that’s been slowly building — right from the beginning, when they’re on the dive boat with all the other tourists, and they’re pretty much keeping to themselves, and you know with a terrible dismay even then that if they had only talked to some of the other divers someone might have realized they weren’t onboard on the trip back — starts eating you up, and you worry that Kentis is uncompromising enough not to let up on us.

And in the end, he isn’t. Which is why Open Water revisits you in the middle of sleepless nights to remind you how puny you are.

River’s edge
Horror unforgettable in its banality is the fulcrum upon which Jacob Aaron Estes’s Mean Creek turns, too, but instead of the bigness of the world it’s the smallness of the human heart that shatters. In a small Oregon town, Sam (Rory Culkin: Signs, Igby Goes Down) is fed up with being pushed around in the junior-high yard, so his protective older brother, Rocky (Trevor Morgan: Jurassic Park III, The Patriot), sets in motion a plan to serve up a bit of revenge — cold, natch — to Sam’s tormentor, brutish bully George (Josh Peck). Sam’s not totally opposed to the idea, within limits. “If we hurt him,” he muses, “we’d be no better than him. We need to hurt him without really hurting him.”

But as the kids — including also Rocky’s pals Clyde (Ryan Kelley: Stolen Summer) and Marty (Scott Mechlowicz: Eurotrip) and Sam’s tentative, would-be girlfriend, Millie (Carly Schroeder) — embark on their Saturday afternoon paddle trip down a local creek, a sick, sinking feeling settles over us. George was told the outing was in celebration of Sam’s birthday; actually, George is being set up for a massive humiliation, and though the kids have only a dim premonition of the awful danger they’re putting themselves in — particularly Millie, with a girl’s sharper empathy — the dreadful weight of inevitability, of tragedy in the offing is in the air.

Even more painfully raw, though, is the mundane meanness of these kids, even the “good” kids like Sam — these kids know one another’s soft spots, and they target them mercilessness, even those of their alleged friends. The film pulls no punches, makes no apologies or excuses — George really is an unpleasant little bastard, and it’s difficult to muster any genuine sympathy for anyone involved. What is present in spades, though, is the kind of anger than we don’t usually see coming from kids on film, unsensationalized and real. Mean Creek is a terrible and compelling journey through the emotional landscape of kids that adults would rather pretend is a much sweeter place than it actually is.

And then we have Without a Paddle, and even teenaged boys must be getting tired of this stuff. Here we have the summer’s umpteenth rendition of stoner jokes, inappropriately aggressive animals, “humor” involving human waste products, terrified homophobia, and the most ridiculous use of “bullet time” this week. Movies don’t get much more disgustingly juvenile than this… until the next one, of course.

Three pals — played by the moderately appealing Dax Shepard, the highly appealing Seth Green (Scooby-Doo 2), and the thoroughly unctuous Matthew Lillard (The Perfect Score) — take a heart-of-darkness river trip in honor of their dead friend, Billy. With a director, Steven Brill, who’s a veteran of little other than Adam Sandler films, and an opening sequence that features a hot chick humping Billy’s coffin at the funeral — Billy loved life, see, and so the ladies loved him — you pretty much know what you’re in for. And yet it’s so much worse. When the script isn’t an embarrassment along the lines of lobbing bombs made literally of shit — and oh, don’t imagine that “shit bomb” isn’t totally apropos here — and positing 30-year-old men who are as excited as 12-year-old boys at the prospect of seeing a girl’s (i.e., a woman’s) “downstairs,” it’s an embarrassment along the lines of recycling jokes so old they should be dead and buried and clever bits from other films that aren’t so clever the second (or third, or tenth) time around. The groaner of a capper: the wacky hillbilly banjo music. Deliverance us from this crap.

“This might be the last chance we have to do something incredibly stupid together,” is Lillard’s argument for their taking this river trip in the first place. But oh no. There’s sure to be Without a Paddle 2: Up Shit’s Creek.

Open Water
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for language and some nudity
official site | IMDB

Mean Creek
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for language, sexual references, teen drug use and alcohol use
official site | IMDB

Without a Paddle
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated PG-13 for drug content, sexual material, language, crude humor and some violence
official site | IMDB

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