The initially anonymous, deflated aesthetic in the early goings of The Shallows, a misfire at first, only make the film more unmooring when the deliberately trivial beginnings awaken a feral frenzy of bestial, perpetual motion around the mid-point. Parts of the opening are a tease, but primarily they are a false pill, a sleeping dose on the film’s part that eventually channels into a vigorous, if not rigorous, filmmaking exercise when the style shifts from passive herbivore to ferocious carnivore. Graced with the brutal clarity of plot – Nancy (Blake Lively) is trapped on a rock in the ocean, there are monsters afoot – the pared-down situation arouses a harried, frazzled, dazzling momentum on director Jaume Collet-Serra’s part. The mercilessly athletic camera swan-diving around Nancy invokes oceanic force until it warps into a vocabulary for the perilous pas de deux between Nancy and an attacking shark.
More or less, that’s it. Brief screenplay incisions, like how Nancy is considering dropping out of medical school after the death of her mother, don’t accomplish anything outside of padding the mercifully spare runtime, but they also don’t need to. This is primarily, even exclusively, a two-character play: Blake Lively’s harrowing face and a camera without pity, igniting a work that thrives entirely off of sheer visual willpower and kinetic, acrobatic movement. Maybe it was those pesky plots keeping the director from accomplishing anything at all with one Liam Neeson action slog after another, but the minimalist, self-effacing nature of the story here affords Collet-Serra the clemency to flex his muscles and not worry about anything outside of the snappy, snazzy spice of uncomplicated filmmaking mechanics spared any hint of cumbersome narrative affluence.
To be fair, the film isn’t exclusively a show of technique. The early goings douse themselves in ironic blind chance as well as irreverence when Lively’s character befriends a seagull who abides on the rock with her in cackling mockery as his inordinately well-timed squawks imply stoicism and general dispassion on his part. A dry dose of absurdism, he’s a little like the Buster Keaton to the camera’s monolithic train, trucking along with a stone face while havoc is wrecked around him. Throughout, the gull’s stillness and sangfroid suggest everything from heckling audience to beautiful counterpoise for the monumental optical allusions and stimulating, vertiginous movement clarified and distorted by the camera.
Outside of the gull, everything is stillwater except for the pure cinematic mechanics of it, indelibly carrying the film on their back to the realms of legitimate entertainment even when it ought to drown. Flavio Labiano lenses with an eye for subtle down-tuning of the color palette from Mountain-Dew-commercial-blue to foreboding, menacing near-monochrome as the water infests with an awareness of sinister happenings. Even the twitchiness of the editing feels appropriately hectic and jostled rather than merely reluctant to endorse a stable perspective. Ultimately, there’s nothing to it except how effective it is, but when effect is what you’re striving for, who can complain?
A little listless in its pat after-shock of The Babadook, David Sandberg’s Lights Out struggles to recreate the maniacal terror and post-traumatic fallout of Jennifer Kent’s divinely unholy night terror or to carve out a monstrous cavern of its own. The only medicine for the film’s failures is that it is often effective in spite of them, albeit in a haphazard, redolent sort of way. Vacillating between thickly chiaroscuro-infused nightmare and misfire about mental illness, Lights Out must ultimately settle for competence, nothing more and nothing less.
It’s also unnecessarily overloaded and under-confidently (or overconfidently) given to subtext and character psychology, a sense of over-baked thematizing that the film never once succeeds in earning. Sandberg’s otherwise maniacal if impersonal horror film is the latest casualty of the assumption that just because one can turn a horror film into a literal-minded, narrative-based psychological parable, then one should copy-paste the same arbitrary, leaden psychological parable in verbatim from other films. As a work of craft, Lights Out boasts a pitch-black, stalking, nightmarish effectiveness, but it is woefully imbalanced by a script that simultaneously exerts vastly too much effort and somehow not enough, resulting in a work without an equilibrium point between spunky genre thrills and fossilized rhetoric about horror as an expression for mental disorder.
Any skillful film would be aware that horror is naturally an expression of an unstable mind, and pummeling the idea home with stop-and-state dialogue over the course of 80 minutes dooms the film to being absorbed by Eric Heisserer’s tortured screenplay. The Babadook was razor sharp; Lights Out is a rust-bucket rattling around a theme in the most hopelessly literal manner possible, oblivious to how criminally obvious it really is.
Which is a drag; the underlying case that Lights Out makes for Sandberg and his team is often crystal-clear in the film when it doesn’t force itself through a crucible of meaning that is always treated as an addendum to the style rather than baked in to the filmmaking. The actual baseline concept – a feral, not-so-imaginary friend can attack and be seen in the dark but only move in the light – is stone-cold sure-fire haunted-house goodness. And the film’s rhythms mostly massage the terror right out of the screen into your brain, aided mostly by the elbow grease of aesthetic minimalism. And the demonic charisma and spry, animalistic charm of Alicia Vela-Bailey, who plays the corporeal form of Dania, the creature. A creature who is also, unfortunately, a physical embodiment of depression and would be more effective if she existed on her own terms, sans representational weight.
Sandberg is judicious in his employment of jangling-nerve sound cues and particular in his camera placement, never devolving into shaky-cam jitters when hell abounds. He prefers to channel terror through the backbone of distress evident in Marc Spicer’s evocatively underlit interiors which feel artisanal rather than arbitrary. It’s stimulating filmmaking, which is more than can be said of the acting with the exception of Vela–Bailey and the young Gabriel Bateman who plays the young son of the mother afflicted with Dania. Teresa Palmer is adequate as his older sister who moved out and is brought back to play the agent when her panic-stricken mother cannot, but Maria Bello is actively disappointing in a phoned-in role as the mother and the theoretical crux of the film’s exploration of untreated depression.
Thank Heavens for the look of its signature sequences, all fraught with peril and pillaging a variety of light sources from candles to neon signs to transform the film’s afraid-of-the-dark idea into a catalyst for playing around with light and shadow, space and motion, as every source of light imaginable is dredged up (along with a desperate surfeit of unnecessary backstory). As a gambit, these sequences pay off much more than the depression commentary dragged undertow, always leading the film astray because nothing about Sandberg’s style invokes anything meaningful about depression at thematic or perceptual levels. The too-literal study of depression frankly nullifies the primal effect of the movie by channeling it into commentary – the dreaded realm of “about something” cinema – with the least possible nuance.
Unforgivably, the screenplay’s center is a jeopardizing vision of the depressed as hopeless lost causes and burdens, channeling the film into a solemn sojourn into depression-exploitation that negates some of the film’s undeniable good-will and haunted-house glee by pursuing its thematic ambitions to their fatalistic conclusion. The film’s baggage is stifling, and it insists on unboxing layer after layer of it, resulting in the rare film that vacillates between near-genius artistic inspiration in its mise-en-scene and near-sadistic narrative logic that reaches the lower depths of, at one point, actually inscribing information on the goddamn wall, a Mariana Trench of exposition that surpasses even trial-by-flashback for needlessly waterlogged storytelling.
Ultimately, the effectiveness of Lights Out is enshrined in the staggered visual rhythms of a neon tattoo parlor sign, and the more often the film jettisons anything else and frees itself to work on only that purely visual level, the better it is. As an excuse for freakish pure cinema – all darting motion and elegant patches of shadow and subterfuge in the look – Sandberg’s construct is perfect, but its not-so-clandestine fear gets the better of it. What fear, you ask? From minute one, it is just too paranoid, too terrified, that it will be revealed as an unintelligent production that it transforms into one by insisting that it must be something more than just plain ol’ smart filmmaking.