The Film: The Reef (2010)
The Principles: Andrew Traucki (writer/director), James M. Vernon (writer), Damian Walshe-Howling, Gyton Grantley, Adrienne Pickering, Zoe Naylor, Kieran Darcy-Smith
The Premise: Five friends on a sailboat in the waters of South Australia run into some serious trouble when they capsize after hitting a rock. Turtle Island, the nearest land, is miles away, and the current is pushing their boat in the opposite direction. Oh, there is also a hungry great white who now sees some potential improvements in his dinner options.
Is it good? I can think of very few things more frightening than the idea of floating helplessly along in the middle of the ocean, all-too vulnerable to the unknown terrors lurking beneath our legs. Unfortunately, we live in a time during which the mentioning of “shark movie” brings to mind Sharknado, Sharktopus, Ghost Shark versus Eric Roberts, Megashark versus Tiffany’s Boobs, and the legions of other like-minded crap that we’ve been inundated with for years now. Well, The Reef pleasantly surprises as a taut, well-executed thriller that brings our primal fear of earth’s greatest predator to life in surprisingly effective fashion.
Not too many subgenres have a more disproportionate ratio of quality to junk than the shark movie. To be fair, few subgenres have as many constrictions; put people in the water, watch them get picked off, roll credits. Since Jaws set the bar impossibly high 38 years ago, the few movies that have managed to gain any sort of love are ones that made legitimate attempts to do something different – from the sci-fi campiness of Deep Blue Sea to the melodrama-infused Open Water. The Reef, however, proves that working squarely within the aforementioned confines is not the automatic death knell that one may expect.
Traucki (who directed the similarly-effective killer croc film Black Water) paces the first third of the film deliberately, ratcheting up the tension as we anticipate the arrival of our sharp-toothed antagonist. Though this first act is not exactly a bastion of character development, Traucki and Vernon’s dialogue provides each character with enough moments to elevate them from shark bait to relatable people facing life or death decisions. If your boat is capsized, do you try to swim to land that is not even in sight, knowing the dangers that swim below? Or do you stay on top, clinging to the hope that a passing boat will come to the rescue as you drift farther and farther away into the ocean? Do you swim for a paddle board that has drifted away from your small, floating group shortly after seeing your friend be devoured by a great white? The choices and reasoning on display on all sides throughout the ordeal are valid and understandable; moronic-horror-character syndrome is pleasantly absent throughout the proceedings.
The cinematography on display is terrific, constantly keeping the audience in a state of dread as paranoia sets in. Each time the camera drops below the surface, our stomachs drop as defenseless legs flail about, just waiting to be chomped. No character is safe here, and Luke (Walshe-Howling), the only one who has a pair of goggles, is by default the lookout man and lead decision-maker. The acting is solid all around; Walshe-Howling, in particular, really sells the uncertainty of every choice he makes while still attempting to portray confidence to his friends. The film comes to a rather abrupt ending, though one could make the argument that anything else would feel tacked on. All in all, The Reef is a tremendously effective little film that earns the rare status of being a quality entry in one of the many beaten-to-death subgenres of horror.
Is it worth a look? A thousand times yes. Horror and non-horror fans alike should seek this out, as well as Traucki’s previous effort, Black Water. The man knows how to get in touch with our sometimes-forgotten fears of nature’s powers.
Random anecdotes: The Reef is loosely based on the true story of a small group of friends who were stranded off the coast of Australia in the early 1980’s.
The actual shark footage was filmed in the same waters as the rest of the film, in Port Lincoln, South Australia. Hats off to the actors for diving into that madness.
Cinematic soulmates: Open Water, Jaws, Black Water