The Reef

Blue Water, White Death

by Glenn Lovell

It ranks right up there with our top two or three primal fears ‒ finding oneself alone in the middle of the ocean, no land in sight …  legs dangling tantalizingly. Prime fish bait. Spielberg and Peter Benchley capitalized on this in the Amity beach sequences in “Jaws.” Chris Kentis provided a worthy variation in “Open Water,” a Caribbean-set thriller inspired by the forgotten-divers scenario that happened for real on the Great Barrier Reef.

Now paddling into view is “The Reef” (Image DVD), an equally squirm-worthy survival adventure from Aussie writer-director Andrew Traucki, who previously scored with the killer-croc thriller “Black Water.” Again said to be based on a true story, this variation considers an unlucky quintet thrown together on what’s supposed to be a leisurely voyage to deliver a sailboat. Not on the itinerary: the shallow reef that shreds the keel.

As was the case with the three sightseers stuck in a tree in “Black Water,” it now comes down to do we stay put or dangle our little piggies in the water? Cling to the hull, which is floating farther out to sea and will probably sink in a few hours, or paddle the (maybe) 10-12 miles to shore?

Luke (Damian Walshe-Howling), the guy entrusted with delivering the boat, wants to swim for it. First-mate Warren (Kieran Darcy-Smith) says nothing doing; he knows what manner of predator lurks below. He’ll stay put and wait for help. Luke’s friends, lovebirds Matt (Gyton Grantley) and Suzie (Adrienne Pickering), swallow hard and flutter-kick. Kate (Zoe Naylor), who once had a thing for Luke, first says no, then yes, and joins the others in the water.

Befitting its generic title, “The Reef” is an economical, no-nonsense thriller that’s beautifully shot, above and below water, and nicely under-played by all, especially Walshe-Howling, whose leathery exterior masks moments of indecision, and Pickering, as good as Veronica Cartwright in “Alien” at registering abject terror when, as it must, a dorsal fin breaks the surface.

Writer Traucki has served director Traucki well. With a minimum of fuss ‒ i.e. character development, melodrama ‒ we’re tossed into the water and asked to fend for ourselves. Once again, this stripped-down, tightly plotted approach pays dividends. It makes the material more sinister, less manipulative or exploitive. It also makes us feel that anything can happen, anyone can buy it, because Traucki hasn’t gone the formulaic “Poseidon Adventure” route and organized the menu according to billing. His characters, treading water over the abyss, are all eminently munch-able.

Go ahead, take the plunge. “The Reef,” while not nearly as grim as Traucki’s earlier tour of Australia’s mango swamp, is an authentic nail-biter (toe-nibbler?). It certainly lives up to its cheeky come-on: “Pray that you drown first.”

THE REEF With Damian Walshe-Howling, Zoe Naylor, Adrienne Pickering, Gyton Grantley. Directed, written by Andrew Traucki. 88 min. Rated R (but could be PG-13, for slight profanity, artfully suggested ocean attacks)

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