- The Washington Times - Friday, January 14, 2005

Soldiers consider it dishonorable to leave comrades behind. In recent years, educators have been admonished to leave no child behind. “Open Water,” the most incisive and accomplished sleeper of 2004, demonstrated in just 80 minutes that it could be cinematically haunting to imagine two divers being left behind during an ill-fated vacation in the Bahamas.

Released theatrically in early August, “Open Water” became available in a DVD edition a few days before the new year. The married couple responsible for this resourceful and exemplary independent feature, Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, turned out to be fortunate survivors of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated coastal regions of South and Southeast Asia the day after Christmas. It may be impossible to view “Open Water” at this late date without regarding it as a strangely premonitory thriller about humans at the mercy of vast and impervious natural forces.

A number of favorable reviews cited “Open Water” as an effective synthesis of elements that remain well-remembered from “Jaws” and “The Blair Witch Project.” The affinities were difficult to ignore.

The principal characters in the new film are an unmarried but evidently prosperous couple named Susan Watkins (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel Kintner (Daniel Travis), briefly met and mourned as they wedge a strenuous vacation trip into busy professional lives that have created a certain estrangement between them. The pretext leaves Susan and Daniel stranded on the sea while awaiting the return of a diving boat that departed prematurely after a crew member inadvertently lost track of the head count for a batch of recreational divers.

Privately financed by Mr. Kentis and Miss Lau, the movie was shot during weekends and vacations. An established film editor in New York City, Mr. Kentis retained his day jobs throughout the extended production period. In the “Making of …” featurette incorporated into the DVD, he speculates that few colleagues or clients knew he had a personal project in the works.

A first feature, “Grind,” made in 1997, had failed. On the rebound, the filmmakers wanted something that could be made independently and economically. They were attracted to a pastime they knew — recreational diving — and digital video equipment they could own and operate themselves, along with a schedule they could control without studio pressure. The results ought to embolden numerous unknowns who can draw on similar skills and resources.

“Open Water” shares the “Blair Witch” reliance on apprehensive suggestion as a superior fear mechanism to simulated gore, but it doesn’t attempt to pass off the footage as spooky recovered documentation. The settings and acting styles are naturalistic, but the solitude of Susan and Daniel is “on the record” in a strictly fictional sense, witnessed by an omniscient, selective and phantom observer ultimately indistinguishable from the spectator.

The DVD edition includes commentary tracks that match Mr. Kentis with Miss Lau and Mr. Travis with Miss Ryan. Neither performer was well-known before the movie was released, a lag that helps enhance the sense of novelty and discovery for viewers. It was Mr. Travis’ first movie.

In effect, there was a crew of five: Mr. Kentis and Miss Lau were operating the only cameras in every sequence; Miss Lau’s sister Estelle, a lawyer by trade, functioned as the unofficial production manager; and the co-stars were responsible for everything they needed to do. At a certain point, they collaborated on script revisions. Once shooting began, improvisation was anything but practical.

The first draft of the script was written in 2000, prompted by a Dive magazine article about a couple lost off the Australian coast after being overlooked by their transportation. “I don’t think a movie audience would have bought the real story,” Mr. Kentis surmises. The original case involved a complicated court trial and suspicions that the missing divers had faked a disappearance.

It’s reassuring to learn that the filmmakers had been experienced recreational divers for a decade or so. However, the primal eeriness of the movie is enhanced by certain behind-the-scenes revelations, notably Miss Ryan’s confession of being terrified of sharks and Mr. Kentis’ recollection of being bumped repeatedly by the school of sharks being manipulated off camera by wranglers for certain sequences. Evidently, the key to manipulation is heaving chunks of tuna overboard in cunning and timely patterns.

The filmmakers relied on a veteran wrangler named Stuart Cove for this form of expertise. He and his staff make a career of swimming with sharks. Mr. Travis jokes that many of the sharks that answered the call of “Open Water” probably have much longer film resumes than he does.

TITLE: “Open Water”

RATING: R (Sustained ominous impressions; fleeting profanity, nudity and graphic violence)

CREDITS: Written, directed and edited by Chris Kentis. Produced by Laura Lau. Photographed by Mr. Kentis and Miss Lau. Music by Graeme Revell.

RUNNING TIME: 81 minutes

WEB SITE: www.openwatermovie.com

DVD EDITION: Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment

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