“The Reef” is a shark movie, one that largely revolves around people treading water miles from any boat or safe harbor. Sound familiar? Based on premise alone the comparison to “Open Water” is inevitable. Based on the fact that there is a shark in the movie I am professionally obligated to use the word “Jaws” at least once during this review. Shark movies don’t need to be fancied up to register with most of us. Everything they expose in us is deeply primal and rooted in the unknown. For these reasons using a large carnivorous fish as the prime mover in a horror movie seems like an easy get. On the other hand, how many truly scary shark movies are there? Beyond those I have already mentioned I might throw in “Jaws 2”, maybe. Perhaps it is that writing a man-eating fish movie is easy but making a memorably frightening one requires something more.
“The Reef” follows four vacationing friends and a crewman as they set off to deliver a small yacht to Indonesia. Matt and Suzie are a happy Aussie couple returning down under from their home in London to visit Matt’s sister Kate. Together the trio have signed on to help Kate’s ex-beau Luke crew the boat during the trip. Along for the ride is hired seafarer Warren who will handle the heavy lifting during the crossing. The first stop on the journey is an uninhabited spit of land known as Turtle Island. Here the foursome leave the boat to Warren and head off for some snorkeling. Before Kate and Luke can patch things up with some sandy sex, the quartet is hastened back to the boat by their mercenary seaman. As they race back to the yacht to beat a receding tide their inflatable dinghy is torn open on the sharp coral leaving them with no life raft for the duration of the trip. The group manages to escape the peril of shifting tides and eventually they settle in for their first night traversing the reef.
Early the next morning the reef jumps up and bites the boat in a big way, sending it ass over teakettle. The quintet scrambles to the top of the capsized vessel as Luke retrieves some amenities from the hold. Atop the boat their situation becomes clearer; they are sinking, 10 miles away from Turtle Island and being pulled still further out to sea by the current. To make matters worse the group is saddled with an archaic distress signal that is useless without passing aircraft to pick it up and they are floating well outside of an established flight path. Luke decides that they must swim to Turtle Island and he convinces all but Warren to do so. The hired gun declines, stating that he has fished the waters they are stranded in and he knows what lurks beneath the surface. Luke, Matt, Suzie and Kate hit the water and begin a long, jittery paddle to the island, their survival is now completely up to chance and one big Great White tiburon.
Director Andrew Traucki first got my attention with his uncommonly tense and entertaining killer Croc movie “Black Water”. Like “The Reef” “Black Water” claimed to be based on a true story and left the audience stranded with the protagonists in a remote location, besieged by a relentless killer hidden beneath an unending sheet of murky water. What makes both of these movies work is a mastery of technique. With “The Reef” Traucki and cinematographer Daniel Ardilley along with editor Peter Crombie use textural shots in perfect succession to build a tension that is every bit as engrossing as the uneasy moments of “Open Water”. This excellence of composition and montage is complimented by great, but sparingly utilized shark compositing and the union produces a mounting anxiety that can’t even be spoiled by the paint-by-numbers, at-the-last-second finale. Additionally the music by Rafael May is pitch perfect during the long trek back to Turtle Island and the overall sound design is first rate.
There are some middling aspects to “The Reef”. The set-up is done so briskly that before we know who these people are we are on the high seas with them. This wouldn’t be a problem if most of the rest of our time with them wasn’t spent in such a heightened state of anxiety. The result of all of this is that you have a pretty good cast who we don’t get to know well enough to allow us to really invest strongly in their relationships. There are also some rash actions taken by members of the group that seem contrived and test the bounds of verisimilitude. Lastly, as good as Rafael May’s work is during the shark scenes the early music cues are shoddily placed and feel a little like a poor man’s Al Stewart.
These are minor complaints when compared to the achievement that this film is in terms of suspense and scares. I’d like to welcome “The Reef” to my personal shark film Pantheon. And while I don’t know if Andrew Traucki has completely mastered the man versus nature sub-genre (however I would bet that had he been attached to the remake of “Long Weekend” it would have been a much better film), at this point I am willing to stick a toe in the water with him no matter what lurks therein. This is a big compliment considering that to this point Traucki isn’t dealing with terribly original stories. Then again, sometimes excellence of form is every bit as compelling as a fresh concept.