Inspired by grisly real-life events in which a group of unfortunate friends found themselves stranded off the North Australian coast, helplessly bobbing in the water while a shark periodically visits them for a nibble, The Reef is a tense creature feature from Andrew Traucki. It confirms Traucki as the Australian film industry’s go-to guy for movies about panicked people stalked by angry sea beasts; his last project was the riveting Black Water (2008), about three people stuck in a tree while a crocodile circles the waters below. Both films work as unnerving “what would I do?” Mother Nature-with-a-vengeance survival stories that prompt the audience to consider where their own actions might have differed from the characters’.
Luke (Damian Walshe-Howling) is a yachtsman who earns a crust delivering boats to their new owners. He picks up a yacht set to be brought to Indonesia and invites some mates to accompany him and his crewman Warren (Kieran Darcy-Smith) for a week of sunbaking, snorkelling and sailing before the drop off. His friends — couple Matt (Gyton Grantley) and Suzie (Adrienne Pickering), and Luke’s ex-girlfriend Kate (Zoe Naylor) — enthusiastically agree but will rue the decision, if they live long enough to contemplate it.
After some brief moments of sunny shampoo commercial paradise, the yacht hits something and capsizes. The group scrambles onto the hull, and, knowing that the boat is slowly sinking, must decide whether to stay where they are or swim towards land through shark-infested waters. Warren, looking more like an animal caught in headlights than a man lost at sea, decides to stay behind while the others try their luck in the water.
There are obvious challenges involved in visualising a story as stripped back as this, many of which Traucki confronted in Black Water. There are few characters, fewer settings and clever photography required to integrate the monster and its prey. Audiences won’t tolerate clunky mechanical shark jaws a la Bruce the Shark (Jaws) any more; one whiff of cruddy SFX in a humourless context is enough to lose them. Similar to the visual effects in Black Water, The Reef employs impressively eerie image overlay techniques to mingle the cast with real footage of a shark.
The actors pull off the difficult task of bringing substance to their floating fish food roles, but only just: as a collective they bite off a little more than they can dramatically chew but the requisite emotions are exhibited, and they convince. Traucki keeps the tension at a reasonable level once the fit hits the shan, but the best moment is saved for last. One of the final scares is a lump-in-your-throat hoot of terror that will solicit a visceral response from every audience member with a pulse.
The better, less commercial film swimming inside The Reef that never emerges is darker, grittier and edgier than what we see here, with a muddier lens and a less attractive cast. But the film is nevertheless an unnerving winner: tense, twitchy and frighteningly entertaining.
The details: The Reef opens in cinemas nationally today.