Fall / Winter 2004

Open Water and the Five Stages of Death and Dying

by John Kenneth Muir

Invariably, the best horror movies are those featuring the most basic stories. What if you got lost in the woods hiking, like the unfortunate student-filmmakers of The Blair Witch Project (1999)? Or if you feared there was something very wrong with your baby, like poor Rosemary in Rosemary's Baby?(1968) As a genre, horror thrives on fear, and the more palpable and identifiable that instinctual emotion feels, the more efficient the film. With this postulate in mind, this summer's most affecting horror movie is the low-budget, independently produced thriller, Open Water.

A bit of a miracle, Open Water was produced far from Hollywood, on a shoestring budget of $130,000. Directed and written by Chris Kentis, the movie dramatizes the harrowing story of a very modern, very American couple, Daniel (Daniel Travis) and Susan (Blanchard Ryan). They've ceded too much of their lives to busy careers, and when they get a break from ringing cell phones and e-mail, steal away on vacation to the Carribean.

But when Dan and Susan get to the islands, they fill their free time planning excursions, like a scuba diving trip. Once on the dive, a simple mistake results in the unimaginable: Daniel and Susan are left behind by their diving boat! Alone in the middle of a turbulent sea, with night falling and sharks circling ever closer, Daniel and Susan begin to face the incomprehensible truth that they are on their own. No cell phones will save them. No rescue infrastructure or bureaucracy will pluck them from danger.

This is an incredibly simple plot, (and the film is a scant 79 minutes long), but again, that's one element that works strongly in its favor. The bulk of Open Water is spent at sea, with endless ocean-level shots of the couple coping with their horrible circumstance. Dan and Susan get hungry; fish nip at their legs, they vomit, they pee, they fall asleep, and try to hold onto life, and to each other. It's bone-chilling, and the authentic location and adroit hand-held camera work makes the audience feel the cold of the water and the endless lapping of the waves. This isn't a movie you can watch dispassionately, it's one that happens to you, one you experience.

But really, Open Wateris an effective horror film because of the template that forms the bedrock of its simple narrative. It mimics perfectly Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's famous "five stages of death and dying." Basically, Ross's theory is that in facing mortality, all people transition through a series of developments or stages. Open Water walks the audience through these stages, as our protagonists attempt to come to terms with their fate in the merciless ocean.

In accordance with the first stage of death and dying, at first, there is complete denial. Daniel stubbornly insists they will be rescued. In fact, he doesn't even swim towards other boats visible on the horizon because he believes that the diving vessel will return to the exact spot where it left them. Needless to say, that doesn't occur.

After a time, angerfollows denial. Splashing his hands in the water like a child, Daniel bellows at the top of his lungs and throws a tantrum. He is bitter that they "paid" for this experience, the opportunity, essentially, to die. He and Susan argue, and she blames him for their crisis. He stayed underwater looking at fish for too long, she complains, and that's why the boat left.

Ross's third stage of death and dying is bargaining. Here, Susan and Daniel talk about how if they could just get back to their comfortable life in front of the TV (and the Discovery Channel), they wouldn't be so foolish as to entertain a venture like this again.

Very soon, the fourth stage, depression, sets in. The couple realize that no one is coming for them and that this is, indeed, how they are going to die. Here. Today. Now.

I wouldn't dream of giving away the film's climax, but to suffice it to say that the fifth stage, acceptance, is broached. At least one-half of the couple—in one of the most coldly realistic and horrifying scenes I've ever seen in a movie—analytically accepts the reality of the situation and makes a choice that is carefully weighed as a better option than being eaten by sharks.

There is no typical movie bullshit in Open Water. It is unremittingly realistic, and every decision Susan or Daniel forges has a consequence to their continued survival. There are no easy solutions, and the film is so harshly truthful that it even feels a little cruel. Putting a married couple through this endurance test is torture, at least for this reviewer. The only thing worse than facing your own demise is having to confront that reality with the person who means more to you than life itself. Accordingly, the emotions in the film are powerful, and enormously affecting on a primal level.

Some critics and audiences didn't like Open Water, feeling that not enough "events" occurred in the narrative, or that there wasn't enough character development to sustain a feature. These are criticisms that misunderstand the film's intent and narrative structure. Open Water is actually all about character development, as these two people—representing Any Couple—transition from one stage of death and dying to the next, from denial all the way to acceptance. The movie climaxes only when all five stages have been vetted, and this structure grants Open Water a kind of artistic completeness and intellect that is all too rare in the American cinema today.

But it's not a happy film, either. I left the theater after Open Water feeling discomforted and troubled. The movie doesn't blink, doesn't retreat from the reality of a horrifying scenario, and there is no sunlight to part the dark clouds. Instead, the film reminds us that we don't control our fate. Something as simple and ultimately as meaningless as a mistake—a frigging arithmetic error—could affect our very lives. It's a horrifying thought, and one that makes Open Water a profound statement about existentialism and the human condition. Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, Open Water reminds we aren't really safe anywhere.

And Moore does so with a little help from his friend, Dubya...