The silent panic of ‘The Shallows’

Kaitlin McNabb
21 min readApr 13, 2019
Blake demands the glamour filter. The shark demands the blood. Source file c/o the Internetz

From the shockingly unwatchable to ridiculously good, the Sharkometer series dissects every shark movie according to the GOAT Jaws.

The Shallows by Jaume Collet-Serra, 2016
Starring: Blake Lively, Óscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge, Pablo Calva, Janelle Bailey, Sully Seagull
Budget: $17–25 million USD
Box office: $119.1 million USD
Number of times previously watched: 0

Listen to me talk about The Shallows on the Deep Blue Sea Podcast!

A video-cam helmet washes ashore; a broken surfboard bangs nearby. The tape plays: water, screaming, a shark tears into view. “The biggest [shark] is 25 feet, we made ours 21 feet. Big enough,” said The Shallows director Jaume Collet-Serra. It’s a pretty great encapsulation of the mindset of The Shallows because unlike many entries in the Jaws Sharkometer, its starting point isn’t Jaws, it’s survival.

All that to say: guys, I finally did it. I watched The Shallows, and you’re right! It did not disappoint. I never assumed it would — I just always want shark movies to be about more than just a shark. And The Shallows definitely is that. It’s not a“gory little B movieit’s a minimalist thriller that has a lot going on. It’s the story of Nancy, a lapsed med student struggling with her mother’s death from cancer, the futility of survival, and Nancy’s search to find meaning. It’s the story of the spectrum of fear that pervades women’s lives and the protective barriers we put up. But also, it’s a story about a rogue shark relentlessly attacking Nancy. And I do mean relentlessly. To that end, we’re doing things differently and running through the Sharkometer for The Shallows in the order that I wrote it and dispatching with a few categories this time because of *~reasons~* okay? Let’s dive in, we’ve got a lot to cover.

Sound editing and the value of silence

The deep notes Da nuh. Da nuh. Da nuh Da nuh Da nuh Da nuh Da nuh sink into your brain; the shark POV closes in, zeroing in, gaining speed, closer and closer until… ATTACK!

The piercing siren Ri! Ri! Ri! Ri! Ri! Ri! Ri! Ri! no doubt conjures that stark shower and lumbering body looming closer; a blade plunges deep in your chest. Blood drains out across the floor, slowly emptying into a drain.

All that imagery gained just from some questionable phonetic writing of famous scores? C’mon!

Music’s ability to enhance film through atmosphere, judgement, and physiological conditions is well established. In Jaws, Da nuh signals “the shark is coming” and he’s probably going to eat someone — a villain established with two notes, as Jack Black’s character in The Holiday aptly says. Those two notes make us dread and worry and generally freak out when we hear them: “get out of the water you stupid idiots! Those deep notes just sounded!” In Pyscho, the staccato-ed strings shriek for us and amplify the horror of the murderer’s brief pause before he stabs and stabs and stabs. Musical phrases both so culturally ubiquitous they inspired countless interpretations (my favourite being that of Garth’s “psycho stab” of a donut) and sometimes supersede a predecessor, as was the case when my high school band couldn’t stop playing Antonin Dvork’s Symphony №9 “From the New World” with the Jaws emphasis. (They’re similar!)

For Psycho, the music is as iconic as it is culturally ubiquitous and, some argue, make the movie. Apparently Alfred Hitchcock would only finish his movies 60 percent and leave the rest up to composer Bernard Herrman, which, for Psycho, led to creating a scene so terrifying that shower victim/actress Janet Leigh didn’t shower for years after the scene. She recollected to the New York Times after viewing the film, that she was “stunned, claiming that the editing, the rhythm, and the music brought harsh realism to the scene. It was as though she could actually feel the thrusts of the knife going through her.” It’s a moment most of us are familiar with probably before we even saw Psycho, most likely through the lens of The Simpsons in about 75 per cent of cases, I’m guessing. Steven Spielberg, initially skeptical of the theme, now credits the music for “half of the success’’ of Jaws.

What I’m saying is the music was integral to these, and most, movies. It creates thematic cues, like the above, and evokes a myriad of emotions, many of which, as Pitchfork noted in the case of Jaws, seem particularly cruel by juxtaposing idyllic New England summers with the carnage of a deadly shark. But what happens when we hear nothing?

First off, yes, The Shallows has a (great) score by veteran horror composer Marco Beltrami, and yes, you can hear it in the movie. But, in contrast to Jaws and Psycho, the score doesn’t function as the leader or movie/villain maker, provoking and controlling scenes, rather it enhances and sustains moments, functioning along side the scene instead of driving it and harnesses its tension — the predominant theme song of The Shallows is silence.

Nancy sits on her surfboard, alone, waiting for one last wave, eyes darting around: Silence.
Nancy chaotically surfaces, gasping for air, thrown from her surfboard, swimming toward it, unaware the shark lurks below: Silence.
Nancy waits restlessly on a rock, tending her injuries, sky darkening, as the shark secretly stalks her beneath: Silence.
A drunken man disappears under the water. Two men vanish swimming desperately towards Nancy. Silence.

The silence is unnerving. It is stark and abrupt. It got me thinking and feeling all the things in my brain: “What’s that shadow in the water? Where did that sound come from? The bird is squawking!”

The silence is fucking terrifying and so, so brilliantly effective in captivating us and forcing us to listen to our brains, and not any precursor musical cues.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the value and effect of silence, particularly when it comes to my phone. My phone has become a tool of distraction and procrastination partly because phones can do so much now and we rely on them for real things, and partly because it fills a void. I throw on a podcast walking to the train or youtube for background noise. I check instagram and twitter after completing a task or “just for a break.” And I enjoy precisely none of it. I feel exhausted and bored by my constant need to fiddle and be stimulated or the reflex to just grab my phone.

Anne Helen Peterson describes struggling with similar issues, specifically picking up her phone whenever there is a break in action — writing down a thought, standing in line, whatever — just to fill the void. Just scrollin’ to scroll. This led her to the work of Cal Newport and his idea of digital minimalism. Newport has been called “the Marie Kondo of Mobile Phones,” which to be called the Marie Kondo of anything is the highest honour in my books. In short, he discusses finding purpose and value in the way you use your phone, instead of simply distracting yourself with it or doing ineffective digital detoxes. As AHP broke it down, our problematic phone use is a bad habit and we must focus on the “habit” part, not just the “bad” part in order to fix it. She decided to break her phone habit by ridding her silence safety net and gradually challenging her relationship with her phone a la Newport. No internet on planes. Apps to time Internet use. No distraction, no sounds. And, spoiler alert: she found by fighting the impulse to grab her phone, she was able to “hang out in her own mind” and figure out what she wanted. In effect, she was able to let things marinate and then sort through them effectively.

I realized I used to do something similar by going on “writer walks.” After writing a big section or feeling stuck, I would go out, no headphones, and just walk. Note: This is actually a very common thing called “clearing your head.” Regardless, I allowed my mind to disconnect from aimless digital and musical cues and let the silence creep in. Then I started filling up the silence with sounds, sometimes genuinely because I wanted to listen to something, but a lot of the time not. Why, I am not sure, but I have a sneaking suspicion the reason is dangerously close to what Jenny Odell, lover of long walks, describes in her book How to Do Nothing about social media, the “cult of productivity,” and their intersections in society, mainly, that social media robs us of our attention and collapses context and work culture now thrives on a constant state of agitation and working yourself to death. It’s easier to detox or distract than challenge why we do the things we do.

In an effort to not collapse under it all, I have been trying to be more intentional with my listening and found when I don’t dampen my brain I’m more attuned to the things I actively want to listen to and, alternately, I notice other things, subconsciously or consciously. Yesterday, I noticed the garbage truck sounded like a broken down jazz band and remembered the 99% Invisible podcast realizing the DC metro escalators sound like a, well, broken down jazz band.

The same thing happened when watching The Shallows: I noticed things, other things, things that signalled “hey something different is happening here.” I felt the brush of Nancy’s fingers against the water and heard the sound of the waves rocking against her as she bobbed silently on her surfboard. Within that space, I sat catatonic and petrified waiting for the shark to launch out and screamed internally “Holy fuck, get out of the water right now you silly bitch!” Without the crush of musical cues always present I was forced into my brain, which can be a quite the place, especially when watching a shark movie, and my attention was solely on the rich, full silence of the movie and the frightening anticipation of what would come next.

My experience was elevated by the silence because, as Hanif Abdurraqib said in his book Go Ahead in the Rain, not all silence is silence. We build our own language from the sounds. What we fill the silence with is our own language, and experience, and expectation. When there is intention within our silence, there can be purpose in our noise, and The Shallows feeds this and let’s our minds drift and wander during the most tense moments, and it scared the crap outta me.

(Sound) Editing rating: 2/2 Mother Cutter scissors

Filming and the presence rape culture

Two things stood out to me when I watched this movie: (1) “damn this is beautifully filmed. Those colours are lush,” and (2) “why the fuck is she in the car alone with a man travelling to surf at a secluded beach?” It played out something like this in real time:

“Nancy, why are you telling this strange man that your friend won’t be joining you? He’s cute, but girl.
“Oh great, the man is now judging you for looking at your phone instead of nature. How cliche. I mean you should probably look out the window, Nancy, but still.”
“Oof, that beach is s.t.u.n.n.i.n.g. I would like to go there please.”
“Um, why won’t he tell you the name of the beach? This is either to protect a cultural institution from over-tourism or an enormous red flag.”
“Really? Uber? Set up a ride bitch!”
“Damn, Blake is so hot. Body be bangin’”
“Ew. Those surfer bros are the worst. ‘Rough out here for a little girl from texas’ Go die, bros.”

The vacillation between rape culture and cinematic beauty was strong.
My reaction reminded me of reading Wild by Sheryl Strayed and how I reduced a lot of the beautiful moments (alone in nature) and banal moments (two men approach her at night) in that book to panic because, well, I am a woman living in this world and understand the capabilities of men. What differed was I was immediately assuaged by the beautiful gauzy colours on screen and transported back to the calmness of the beach. It’s a tension-relief cycle I remember feeling when I watched Moonlight complete with its stunning Miami-inspired colours juxtaposed against its intense emotional moments. And, it’s a tension director Collet-Serra was purposeful in creating — just not to the full extent of reasons I thought.

Unlike how in Jaws Spielberg focused on the mechanics of film technique (e.g., the dolly zoom and shark POV) to signal danger and the shark, Collet-Serra emphasized style and metaphor to create these transitions: harmless tropical colours give way to scary dark, grey coldness as the shark appears and the situation grows more dire. This shift in perspective and tone is epitomized in the scene where Nancy — injured by the shark, escaping the whale carcass for the rock — staggers onto the rock and slowly stands up as the camera swirls around her and the sky darkens as the reality of her situation sinks in. The sun-soaked surfing movie with a camera’s eye towards the male gaze becomes a saga of survival centralized on Nancy.

“I think [it’s] important for [the] audience to get sucked into the movie from a positive light, in a sense that you want to agree with the decisions that your main character does. [Y]ou have a young woman, who’s traveling alone through Mexico, hitching a ride. She gets into the water, barely talks to some surfers, and then stays there later (than the locals advise). If the beach looks like a scary beach, she’s very dumb. So if it’s beautiful, if the people are friendly, then it gives her a false sense of comfort, which is what we wanted,” Collet-Serra further explained.

It is telling that the director casually dismissed the presence of men under the notion that Nancy had a false sense of comfort from beautiful surroundings, and later, that the dudes looked nice. Not calling him out (but sort of) let’s revisit some of the male figures that caused my outbursts: (1) unknown man driving Nancy to a secluded beach; judges her for using phone, (2) two male surfers mock and belittle Nancy, ask her to come closer; think she is cool when she proves she can surf, and, later, (3) the shark, who Nancy refers to as a “he.”

Nancy seems fine with the first dude, Carlos. Maybe there’s a back story there, I’m not sure. I mean, he is cute. The surfer bros seem benign, harmless even, but Nancy is justifiably freaked when they ask her to come close. It’s a shift in dynamic that many ladies have been privy to, a moment of “this is fine” leading to “ah, there it is. Red flags.” It’s something that is commonplace for women and that most men don’t experience or pick up on when witnessing these interactions. Its sentiment contributes to my perception that the underlying narrative of rape culture is imbued across the film and something that the director was consciously creating by initially distorting our expectations with rich colours.

Same for the third: subtract the shark, and monitoring and surveillance is a common strategy along the spectrum of dangerous and douchey men. Scacchi Koul’s theory on the intersection of surveillance and rape culture describes her experience in a bar and notes her safety becoming her “sole responsibility” and how “any lapse in judgement could [result] in clear and present danger” as strange men kept tabs on her drunkenness and location. “It also set [me] up for a chorus of ‘Well, she should’ve known better,’” wrote Koul something Collet-Serra echoed in a similar justification for Nancy: “[However,] that doesn’t mean that she’s not dumb for going to look at what’s going on there, because every movie needs a bad decision.” It’s true, Nancy checking out a whale carcass is an unquestionably bad idea. Like, who? But at what point does Nancy’s bad decision or wrong place/wrong time narrative become, what Koul described as “premeditated” attack and not just what Collet-Serra described as “her bad decision”?

For Collet-Serra, the point is when Nancy, pale and draining of colour, zooms in on a still of the shark from the camera she has desperately retrieved and sees a hook lodged it its mouth (“someone got you”) and when she notes she “swam up on his feeding ground” instigating some territorial battle. The hook was meant to show they were not demonizing the shark and that “if this shark is acting [abnormally, it] is probably because of human, previous interaction. She was trying to protect their territory. And on top of it, [the shark] probably went through the torture, battle with some other people that were trying to hunt her, and that’s why it’s not acting (normally).”

What’s even more at odds with my interpretation vs. Collet-Serra’s interpretation of the film is that the shark is female. Anthropomorphizing animals can be problematic, however, in movies we can allow a bit of it. Words like “ingrained misogyny” and “special place in hell” began to swirl through my head, but were silenced by the fact that all roads lead back to Nancy, her perception of the shark, and ultimately my experience of this movie and in the world.

Nancy views the shark as male — “he has killed three people” “he is still circling” — and it is definitely very likely she has a similar view of the world and patriarchy given that she’s a woman who lives in it and doesn’t seem to harbour any outwardly hateful views.

For me, I see Nancy’s actions not as a bad decisions but as a desperate attempt for catharsis and healing — she is willing to endure anything in order to get to that beautiful beach, where her mother stood, pregnant with her and possibility, and soak it all in. Her desire and desperation outweigh reality in that she is careless with her safety because she doesn’t care about her safety: her mother is dead. She brushes off Carlos when he says he can’t see the outline of a pregnant women in the island; she stays out for one last wave; she follows dolphins out farther; she watches as animals feed off the whale carcass. Nancy wants to be out there so badly nothing dissuades her.

Her lush and colourful, yet seemingly unexamined life unravels as the colours literally drained out of it and they slowly creep bad in as she builds it back and saves her own life and looks up at the beautiful blue sky and that dreamboat Carlos.

Filmin’ rating: 4/4 video cameras (all are go pros)

Hitchcockian flare and the Final Girl

Nancy is not the Final Girl. Hear me out. Carol J Clover defined the Final Girl in her seminal work Men, Women, and Chainsaws as the last female who survives the events of the film, either killing the villain or being saved last minute, who is “morally superior” (re: a virgin). The Final Girl, as originally studied by Clover, is a trope of the 1970s and 1980s horror films where survival of the last girl didn’t necessarily mean that she had agency or was a hero — it didn’t even mean the killer was dead — she simply survived. These Final Girls were also usually quickly dispatched in the sequels of the movies (except notably Laurie Strode in the Halloween franchise).

Enter Scream. Scream is credited with re-inventing and reinvigorating the horror genre in the 1990s by moving it into a new meta-horror genre that centralized on female protagonists, delivering a new type of Final Girl with agency and other things (re: no virginity): Sidney Prescott. When Clover wrote her book in 1992, Scream did not exist and I haven’t been able to find her thoughts on Sidney Prescott who goes against a lot of Clover’s definition of a Final Girl, mainly that she’s had sex. However, Clover did note that sometimes the Final Girl would have a unisex name, like Sidney, so that’s spooky, and Erica L. Wright, applying Clover’s theories to horror movies, notes that while she thinks the Scream franchise is savvy about the rules of surviving slasher films, it doesn’t engage with Clover’s theories on gender in horror movies.

Alexandra West in her book The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle: Final Girls and a New Hollywood Formula does think Scream and Sidney Prescott shifted the discussion on Final Girls and horror movies by subverting the expectations of the roles of women and killers. West theorizes that where the Final Girls of the 1970s and 1980s were a conduit through the killer’s eyes, Final Girls of the 1990s were the focus of the horror. We were in their world, not the killer’s world this time.

In many ways Nancy is a throwback to both the Final Girls of the 1990s and 1970s/1980s. She is savvy, smart, and gorgeous, and, like Sidney, must face the consequence of her mother’s death in order to survive. Sidney reckoned with her mother’s “slutty” past and fought back against her psychotic friend and boyfriend; Nancy must reconcile her mother’s fight and ultimate death with the possibility of her own manifested quite literally, and also figuratively, in a shark in whose world she is stuck, like the Final Girls of the 1980s. Nancy’s intersection stuck as both an interloper in the shark’s world and in the in-between of her own life means she must take a journey both through the shark’s world to find safety (as the trail becomes littered with bodies) and through her own mind to figure things out.

For contemporary women, Marueen Murdock described this Heroine’s journey as healing of the wounding of the feminine that exists deep with her and the culture. It is worth noting that Joseph Campbell, who described the hero’s journey, responded to Murdock’s theory with “Women don’t need to make the journey. In the whole mythological tradition the woman is there. All she has to do is to realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to.” So, no worries Nance, the people will reach you! What’s that? They’ve all been eaten? Well then.

Jokes aside, Nancy is s.t.r.u.g.g.l.i.n.g. She has lost her faith in medicine after watching her mother’s long fight that yielded “the same results.” When her dad insinuates she is not a fighter like her mother, she bluntly says “not everyone can be helped dad, you know that,” and later “she fought too hard dad, and for what?” I mean, that shit is bleak, and rightfully so. When Nancy becomes a pawn in the shark’s world she relies on her instincts and medical training initially — she bandages her wounds, tracks the shark’s patterns — to prolong survival. But she’s just going through the motions. It all changes when she records her video message. She begins by cataloging her wounds and documenting the shark’s behaviour and pleads for help before she abruptly stops: she never figured out the name of the beach. She stares off and mutters “this is useless” and begins relating her plan, only to stop and reconfigure the video as a farewell message to her dad and little sister where she seems almost shocked to admit to herself that she misses them “more than she realized she ever could” and ends with promising her dad she’ll fight. In those last moment Blake realizes why her mother fought so hard, and why she must fight to get off that rock, even if it seems futile, because she loves her family and wants to see them again and fighting is better than dying. She must get off that rock in order to live.

Thus begins the next phase of her journey: stuck on a buoy. She has just out-swam and outsmarted the shark to the metal buoy only to be thwarted by a faulty flare gun. In the deepest pit of despair, after another flare misfires and she is left swinging on the buoy, she hears her own voice say “I’m going to fight just like she taught us” as the shark suddenly rams the buoy. This time though she is suitably pissed and gets her rage moment muttering “uh un” and yelling “fuck you” while firing the flare gun at the shark and literally igniting the final battle. She ultimately defeats the shark in the most spectacularly ridiculous fashion I have seen and though she doesn’t get to fire a point blank shot like Sidney, that shark is definitely dead. We won’t see that tail wriggle and make a final comeback. Nancy washes ashore, clears her own blocked throat, and wakes up to the sunshine. Soon after the credits roll with “I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die” bellowing over them to put a finer point on things.

So wait, after all that how is Nancy not the Final Girl? She survived didn’t she?!

Yes. However, Final Girls, like Sidney Prescott and even Laurie Strode, survive at a great cost to their mental health and selfhood. (I mean, they were effectively hunted by men for years.) Nancy’s journey is a self-actualizing narrative that ends with her surrounded by supportive family and willingly getting back in the water. It reminds me of Natasha Lyonne’s character Nadia in Russian Doll who literally breaks the cycle of pain inflicted on women by healing herself and helping others. They push the narrative further along the spectrum from one about how much pain a woman can endure, alone, to how she can make it to the other side and find help during or when she gets there. A killer does not derail her whole life, she chooses her own path (even the wrong one sometimes). It is about allowing these women to be flawed and complicated and utterly human and not abandoning them to their trauma. Nancy and Nadia are Final Girls — yes I lied up top— but they represent a new type of Final Girl and that’s a welcomed progression in the canon.

Hitchcockian Flare rating: 10/10 gold medals

Humour is not a shark impaled on a rod

Originally I thought the ending was quite bonkers and all “it’s fun! It’s a shark movie!” but was rather disappointed to see the shark’s body humourously impaled on rebar. But on my other re-watchings, I didn’t see its death as funny, more sad because the veneer of a “shark movie” had worn off and Nancy’s face is so crushing after it happens.

The only other “funny moment” to me is when Nancy yells “come back” at the car and it reminded me of Rose in Titanic (there was definitely room on the door for Jack).

Good humour rating: 1/5 popsicles

Lack of (terrible) CGI

I’m going to give it up to this CGI because it actually looked convincing, HOWEVER it did not convert me and I’ll tell you why: the reason the CGI is “good” is because we don’t see much of it. Straight outta the pages of Jaws, we barely see the shark in The Shallows, until the very end. And by then, you’re too invested.

That jellyfish seen looked bad though. Also people have critiqued the Blake Lively face CGI which I thought was no more awkward than the Blue Crush Kate Bosworth face CGI.

No CGIs allowed rating: 1/3 mechanical shark fins

Final Thoughts: This ain’t no shark movie

I was reluctant to see this film for the same reason I am always reluctant to see a new shark movie: I don’t want to be disappointed. Shark movies should be fun, but they should also be multifaceted and interesting — they are part of the horror genre. Lately shark movies are flailing in the middle, or in the case of The Meg, failing to be anything. Luckily, The Shallows was different and, even if we all didn’t come to the same conclusions, the movie was rich enough to inspire different interpretations and I think a lot of that stems from the fact that Collet-Serra didn’t actually make a “shark movie,” he made a survival movie that had a shark in it. Wanting to parallel survivalist/isolationist movies like 127 hours and Gravity freed him from the constraints the shark genre, especially the obsessive need to callback to Jaws (re: The Meg), can place on a shark movie. Yet, it is still a fantastic shark movie with the trappings of a shark movie.

Nancy is such an intriguing character the more you think about her (even if Blake Lively can sometimes be a dull actress, don’t @ me) and I would be interested to know Collet-Serra’s impetus for centering his film around her, especially given our discussion of Final Girls and where she fits in the canon. The interviews I have read with him are both very fascinating because he is so thoughtful about his film and characters and also very frustrating because his interpretations of Nancy seem limited. I guess I just want more nuance because making female-centric films still seems like an incredibly intentioned, almost political act and, I think, a female protagonist adds more layers. And in this movie, including the shark, he had two. But maybe it’s not about that for him, and that’s okay, because he allowed the movie to be about other stuff for other people. To me it’s about silence and a woman’s experience, and I leaned in on that. I think Nancy is part of a wave of female characters who are no longer seeking a safe haven or perfect life, rather trying to better equip themselves for navigating the choppy waters.

You should watch this movie and let it be whatever you want because there’s enough in it to guide any experience, not just mine, and then tell me what you think.

Next up: Lady-filled fear in ’47 Meter Down’

For a complete list of Sharkometer movies, swim here.

References and Recommended Readings

As always, support is linked throughout the piece and additional reading that shaped the piece are below.

Russian Doll Reminds Us that We Can’t Help Others Until We Help Ourselves by Emily Asher-Perrin
Backwards and in Heels: Russian Doll, Happy Death Day, and How Women Survive Time Loop Stories by Natalie Zutter
Do Not Disturb: How I Ditched My Phone and Unbroke My Brain by Kevin Roose
Faculty of Horror podcast episode Blood in the Water by Alexandra West and Andrea Subissati
“Not in my Movie”: The 90s Slasher Cycle and Grrrl Power by Alexandra West
From Jaws to The Shallows: how Hollywood demonises sharks by Rebecca Hawkes
Why the music of ‘Jaws’ is still terrifying by Matt Juuls
Has The Shallows Ushered In A New Era Of Sharksploitation? By Joey Keogh
‘Moonlight’ Glow: Creating the Bold Color and Contrast of Barry Jenkins’ Emotional Landscape by Chris O’Falt
Not Your Final Girl: In “Halloween,” Laurie Strode Is a Survivor by Sezin Koehler