Survival instincts: the cinema of Jaume Collet-Serra

In our September 2016 issue, Nick Pinkerton defended the work of the Spanish director, who had carved a successful niche in the US making high-quality, middle-budget genre pictures, including a jaw-droppingly entertaining shark attack thriller.

21 March 2024

By Nick Pinkerton

The Shallows (2016)
Sight and Sound

In what is easily the most dispiriting multiplex season in memory we cling to whatever we can, and the general mediocrity only serves as a contrast to the qualities of Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows, a taut, focused little thriller about Blake Lively weathering repeated assaults by a great white shark while… clinging to whatever she can.

Lively is on a solitary sentimental pilgrimage to a cloistered beach in Mexico beloved of her late mother, when the man-eater interrupts her surfing, leaving her with a gory love nip and pinning her down overnight on a little rocky promontory where she has to match her smarts against the shark’s superior speed and killer instinct. The film has a nice reined-in sense of scale, the action mostly restrained to a few yards of perilous, patrolled surf, between just a handful of temporary havens on the open water – the rocks which disappear at high tide, a buoy and a half-masticated whale corpse. Moving from blissy, sun-kissed communion with nature to desperate hanging on for dear life, it is tactile in the extreme, attuned to the body in pleasure and pain, the latter especially in one of the more harrowing improvised field surgery scenes in memory. All this, and a knockout avant-garde short in the closing credits!

It is impossible to make a shark picture without invoking the progenitor of the modern monster movie, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) – the film usually seized on as the beginning of the end in the oft-repeated narrative of the rise and fall of New Hollywood, guilty of ushering in the era of the movie-as-thrill-ride and the summer blockbuster. But though the $9 million price tag of Jaws’s over-budget shoot was considered relatively exorbitant when the film was released in June 1975, this adjusts with inflation to a little over $40 million. In the contemporary scene where tentpole releases routinely come in at four or five times that cost, that’s a drop in the chum bucket. This is what makes Jaume Collet-Serra an intriguing outlier. When franchise superstructures and bet-the-house mega-productions are the rule, he has carved out his niche making middle-range standalone genre pictures. And without receiving too much attention, he’s gotten damn good at making them.

Collet-Serra is 42 years old. In a feature filmmaking career that has lasted a little over a decade, he has formed his own production house, Ombra Films, and completed seven films as a director, of which six are somewhere on the spectrum of quality between good and excellent, and one of which is Goal II: Living the Dream (2007). He has done this without ever taking on any of the arthritic serious-mindedness that plagues genre work today. In fact he seems to have little instinct for self-promotion, and the circulated details of his autobiography fit comfortably on a cocktail napkin.

House of Wax (2005)

At age 18 Collet-Serra left his native Catalonia to attend Columbia College Hollywood in Los Angeles, of which he is perhaps the most successful alumnus. He hit the ground running, shot commercials and music videos, and caught the eye of Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis at Dark Castle Entertainment, who tapped him for his debut feature. The result was House of Wax (2005), the most recent remoulding of Charles S. Belden’s story ‘The Wax Works’, filmed by André de Toth, with Vincent Price, in 1953 – though in Collet-Serra’s rendition it just as closely resembles drive-in schlock standard Tourist Trap (1979). A caravan of twentysomethings en route to a college football game in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, are waylaid in the hamlet of Ambrose, formerly famous for its wax museum – though, upon further investigation, the entire town is discovered to be a vast waxworks, from the chapel to the movie theatre, where Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) is playing on a loop. Ambrose is the dominion of demented twin brothers Bo and Vincent (Brian Van Holt), who create lifelike mannequins from the bodies of members of the group, whose number includes Paris Hilton.

The heiress’s stunt casting was the most discussed element of the movie at the time of its release, and she gamely handles a few obligatory in-jokes about her then-still-in-the-news sex tape before being dutifully dispatched with a rusty pole through the head. This is one of an impressive panoply of methods for the thwarting and ruination of the human body employed within the film, including the severing of an Achilles tendon with a pair of tailor’s shears, the sealing of loose lips with a tube of superglue, the removal of a finger joint with a wire cutter, and various attempts to free friends from their wax entombment which go horribly wrong.

I saw House of Wax on its original release and, God help me, I loved it, though this was not precisely the critical consensus, and it was more than four years until Collet-Serra had a proper follow-up. In between he made his lone Spanish feature. The second of a series of films following the exploits of Mexican footballer Santiago Muñez as he climbs the ranks through the elite European leagues, Goal II is to date Collet-Serra’s only sequel or franchise property, as House of Wax remains his only ‘remake’, however loose. He has since eschewed both kinds of meal tickets, instead concentrating on original properties, beginning with Orphan (2009). Where House of Wax mostly limits its sadism to the merely physical, Orphan employs the same degree of ingenuity in devising new innovations in psychological torture, putting the screws to a well-to-do Connecticut couple (played by Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard) who adopt a nine-year-old Russian girl named Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), only to discover after some bloodshed and much subtle psychic warfare that they have actually invited a mentally disturbed adult Estonian dwarf into their angular, split-level modernist home. (As in the ‘House of Usher’-esque finale of his first film, Collet-Serra ends Orphan by literally bringing the house down.)

A work of relentless mental terrorism, Orphan is one of the more artfully depraved properties to hit the multiplex in ages, deserving to be mentioned in the same breath as Euro-sickies like Who Can Kill a Child? (1976) or In a Glass Cage (1986) – both also the work of cruel Spaniards. Its success rests in no small part on the wholly committed performances of Farmiga and Sarsgaard – neither at that point particularly known for genre slumming – as well as Fuhrman, a mannerly little angel in Victorian ruffles who punches across lines like, “I’ll cut your hairless little prick off before you even figure out what it’s for” with Soviet bloc sang-froid. Rather than resorting to off-the-rack archetype, Collet-Serra provides performers the time and space to fill out as actual characters. This quality is further evident in Unknown (2011), the first in an ongoing cycle of films teaming the director with Liam Neeson, which features savoury supporting turns from Frank Langella and Bruno Ganz, two old Cold Warriors briefly reunited in a new field of play.

Orphan (2009)

Neeson is Dr Martin Harris, an American botanist attending a biotech conference in wintry Berlin, who wakes up from a coma after an accident to discover, haplessly, that his wife no longer recognises him, and in fact is at the conference on the arm of another man with all of the credentials of ‘Dr Martin Harris’. Unknown establishes a pattern for the Collet-Serra/Neeson films, of which there are three to date – The Commuter, a fourth outing is scheduled for the autumn of 2017. Rather than reprising the actor’s role as the ageless, supremely confident possessor of “a very particular set of skills” that he played in Taken (2007), the smash which kicked off his late career rebranding as an action star, these movies take advantage of Neeson’s bent, mournful carriage, life-battered melancholy and inherent awkward shyness. The plot of Unknown, which evolves into exotic cloak-and-dagger skulduggery, is built on a much more commonplace anxiety of the middle-aged male – replaced by his wife and watching her from afar, Neeson’s character is as one fitted with the horns of a cuckold. (You might say that the “This is not my beautiful wife” twist in Unknown does for male anxiety about divorce what Joseph H. Lewis’s 1945 memory-lapse thriller My Name Is Julia Ross did for female anxiety around marriage.)

In his next two outings for Collet-Serra, Neeson suffers from rankling regrets and a weakness for the bottle. Non-Stop (2014) sees him play an alcoholic ex-New York cop who’s sunk to the level of air marshal – in fact a fairly privileged position in law enforcement, though plausibility isn’t the film’s strong suit. What it does have to recommend it is some of Collet-Serra’s most spry play to date with the subjective viewpoint, from a bleary hangover prologue to in-flight suspense as the focus ripples across the wary faces of 150 passengers on a JFK-to-Heathrow red eye, looking for a killer.

Run all Night (2015) finds Neeson fallen still further, playing an ex-Irish mob enforcer now reduced to a pants-pissing barstool sponge, who has to sober up and spend a frantic night in the light industry-and-pub districts of Queens trying to shelter his estranged son from the vengeance of his old boss (Ed Harris). A car chase through incoming traffic on Jamaica Blvd is the best since Jack Reacher (2012) or, well, Unknown, and again there is the sort of actorly detail work we’ve come to expect: Nick Nolte as a broken-down mama’s boy who’s never left the nest or apparently been to the dentist, and a wrenching dawn send-off for Harris at the orange-lit Sunnyside railyards.

Complete control

The attention to unities of time and geography that mark Run all Night and Non-Stop carry on into The Shallows. While Collet-Serra has never had a screenwriting credit, he’s evidently taken steps to control the sort of material he works with. He has remained steadily employed, thanks in part to his collaboration with Neeson, a fairly reliable box-office attraction, and to following a simple formula: genre films, made with not more than one marquee name and at a reasonable cost. The Shallows has, as of this writing, made three times its production budget, and most of this in the US, and only Collet-Serra’s highest budgeted film, Run all Night, can really be said to have underperformed – though this is no reflection on its quality.

Run all Night (2015)

Collet-Serra’s filmography is also tied together by an interest in family values, the more fucked up the better. After extraneous cast members are pruned away, House of Wax becomes a grudge match between two sets of twins: Bo/Vincent and the golden girl and the black sheep, played respectively by Elisha Cuthbert and Chad Michael Murray. Where House of Wax explicitly references Gothic sibling-rivalry classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Orphan, an A to Z catalogue of parental terrors, is indebted to Mervyn LeRoy’s problem-child picture The Bad Seed (1956). Unknown has a fraudulent marriage at its centre, while in Non-Stop and Run all Night Neeson’s character is driven to drink in part at least by his failures as a father, which he is given symbolic and literal opportunity to redeem. 

So too is Farmiga – also playing a recovering alcoholic – in Orphan, reborn from the water of a frozen pond in the film’s finale, as Lively returns from the primordial ocean of The Shallows. The presiding family spirit in that film is that of Lively’s character’s mother, recently dead, though very present in the movie’s prologue, which has Lively flipping through images of her. (As in Non-Stop, which pivots on text messages, Collet-Serra here proves himself one of the few directors capable of gracefully integrating ubiquitous new tech into his narratives.) The climax of The Shallows is a final explosion of life force dug from deep within, as in all of Collet-Serra’s films – the grunted “Uh-uh” that Lively emits as she resolves to live, live, live; the last-gasp bullseye from Neeson in Run all Night; or Farmiga’s “I’m not your fucking mommy,” which sent the crowd through the roof at the downtown Brooklyn cinema where I saw Orphan.

Such celebrations of never-say-die stoicism will never pass muster with the double-domes who conflate nihilism and obfuscation with cinematic sophistication. One might also say that all of the above belongs to a screenwriter’s shop-worn stock of attributes for instant thematic depth, and you wouldn’t be wrong – but with all old standards, it isn’t the words, but the singer. Collet-Serra usually lets loose with at least one razzle-dazzle CG-augmented transitional effect per film, and he likes his God’s-eye-view shots, but in general his approach is more subdued – check out how he insinuates the slow sundering of the marriage in Orphan with the introduction of an architect’s drafting table or a corner of a hospital corridor. He has worked four times to date with director of photography Flavio Labiano, but his films without Labiano can’t be said to suffer from the absence – they all show an abhorrence of flat, tension-free frames.

Alas, with The Shallows, even the densest critics have begun to take notice of Collet-Serra, and we can only hope he gets a chance to continue for a few more movies before some enterprising studio smothers him under an avalanche of a couple of hundred million. For as long as he is still at large and under the radar, the mid-range genre movie will be alive and kicking, and those of us who gravitate towards the pleasures of free invention and sound craftsmanship will still have something to mark our calendars by.