The Reef (2010)

Review first published by LWLies.

Near the beginning of The Reef, Sydney-sider Katie (Zoe Naylor) gives her ex-boyfriend, able seaman Luke (Damian Walshe-Howling), a conciliatory present.

Delivered with a coy smile and the words, “I really miss you”, the present turns out to be a long, fat salami – but if this seems the sort of saucy sexual symbolism that would not be out of place in a Carry On film, it will also turn out to be the meaty subtext, neatly gift-wrapped, of a film  where every sort of carnality reigns. Sure these two erstwhile lovers still want to eat each other up, but just as Luke will later ask, “Is this just sex or is it something else?”, it will emerge that there are indeed other kinds of fleshy hunger lurking just below the surface.

“I’m starving,” Katie will tell Luke, moments before the yacht capsizes in the open water – and when she, her brother Matt (Gyton Grantley), his girlfriend Suzie (Adrienne Pickering) and Luke decide to swim the ten or so miles to a nearby island rather than stay behind with terrified fisherman Warren (Kieran Darcy-Smith) on the upturned bottom of a sinking vessel, they soon discover that they are in the middle of nowhere being stalked by a predator that is similarly keen on nibbling, chewing and swallowing.

The tropes of survival (or otherwise) in a watery wilderness may be familiar from Open Water, Adrift and even Andrew Traucki’s own crocodile-themed debut Black Water – but when directed as thrillingly as this, these tropes prove all too easy to swallow. Traucki’s recipe is simple. Thanks to a complete absence of flashbacks and the merest hints at back story, his characters come stripped down to their flesh and bone, making it easy to identify with them, but difficult to reduce them to any recognisable cliché.

The point-of-view is restricted largely to these bobbing humans (only one of whom has goggles to see underwater), so that tension is expertly built upon what is only half-seen or not seen at all, leaving much of the horror to be imported by the viewer’s expectant imagination. And when the shark is seen, Traucki avoids the reality-breaching artifice of animatronics or CGI, instead seamlessly compositing footage of actual 14-foot white pointers into shots of his terrified cast afloat. As the director had already learnt making Black Water, nothing is more frightening than the real thing.

Best of all, though, is the way that Traucki finds room for broader existential concerns in his characters’ genre-bound life-or-death struggles. As they travel by boat from the vast island that is the Australia mainland to the much smaller paradise of Turtle Island, and then find themselves forced to climb onto the underside of their yacht, or to cling to broken floats in the open water, or to perch on a series of smaller and smaller mid-reef rocks, their isolation becomes something of a metaphor for the human condition, where life is precarious, death is always circling, and our own appetitive impulses can suddenly seem less important than those other moral qualities that distinguish us from wild beasts.

Anton Bitel