“Old Black Water, keep on rollin’, kookaburra moon won’t you keep on shinin’ on me.” I am in a good mood this morning because for the first time in a few weeks I did not spend the last night of my weekend holed up in my office ignoring my wife and son so that I could suffer through the back-end of someone’s failed cinematic dream. This weekend’s movie reaffirmed my belief that a small group of craftsmen can still fashion a taut and engrossing thriller with nothing but will and a good script. Ironically, the movie I thought would give me this feeling, “The Last Exorcism”, just proved to be a gigantic disappointment shot by someone who had apparently not sat through enough documentary styled horror fiction to figure out what makes them work. And so I say Hallelujah! Hallelujah, for “Black Water”.
“Black Water” is based on true events and follows Gracie and Adam, a young couple who, along with Gracie’s younger sister Lee are vacationing amid the mangroves in Northern Australia. The trio is all smiles as they while away the days visiting crocodile farms and fritter away the nights drinking in bars. Gracie eventually shares with Lee that she is 'with child' but hasn’t yet told Adam. The next day they pull in to take a fishing tour of an extensive mangrove swamp only to discover that they have missed the main outing. Rather unfortunately as luck would have it, a guide name Jim is minding the store and offers to take them out fishing for the day.
A few hours and several miles down the river their angling foray and their boat is upended by a huge crocodile sending the threesome scrambling for a nearby tree and their guide Jim down into the croc’s murky kill zone. Hours pass and the group try to decide the best course of action for surviving their predicament. A few bold moves coupled with a few stupid ones reduce the chances that everyone will get out alive. And as exhaustion sets in and the fates seem to conspire against them it becomes increasingly plausible that none of them will survive the adventure.
I really enjoyed 4/5ths of “Black Water” and the 1/5 that I didn’t was limited to the obligatory table setting. And while it is too bad that the pedestrian elements occupy the first 20 minutes of screentime, "Black Water", much like it’s closest titular, thematic and stylistic sister film “Open Water” has an ample 2nd and 3rd act pay off. Also like “Open Water”, “Black Water” represents a brave undertaking by its directors. Stranding three on a tree for an hour of film-time requires special attention to b-roll, sound design and of course casting. In the last category the players range from fantastic (Diana Glenn as Gracie) to good (Maeve Dermody as Lee). The actors bring an authenticity to their constricting circumstance as well as an aching sense of loss to the events as they unfold. Directors David Nerlich and Andrew Traucki give the actors space to sink into desperation, which makes their hasty reasoning and risky behavior seem even more plausible to the audience. The directing tandem also exercised goosebump-inducing canniness in choosing their supplementary images. A dragon fly bouncing off a fluorescent light, jet trails in the firmament and crazy light dancing off the endless brown river water, all help to communicate an extraordinary level of isolation and vastness. The images in combination with the other facets of the film give the viewer a feeling that the trio are utterly without faculties to challenge their situation.
The script is good, not flawless, but because they filmmakers nail so many potential problem areas and never fully give into the idea that they need a big action set-piece to crown their film many of the unsatisfying plot devices can be forgiven. The crocodile FX are handled with a deft mixture of CG , real croc footage and practicals. The gore is neither lite nor lingering and the standout moment of viewer discomfort is likely to be a nasty looking dislocated finger. Lastly and perhaps most importantly we see the filmmakers’ confidence on display as they let the story unfold under a blanket of natural sound. The aural artistry of the sound design adds ten fold to the tension and allows the few music cues that are used to ultimately have greater affect because of the pregnant ambience in the rest of the movie.
This film’s success is down to simple touches that are so smartly applied that the overall movie achieves an exemplary fusion of elements, elevating it from passable to nearly outstanding. There are the requisite crocodile near-misses, one “No one knows we’re here!” quote and a nearly incomprehensible pause in the water that allows the croc to strike. But as I said before there are too many good things to let those moments spoil the party. Skillful, straight forward, and intense, "Black Water" is good enough to have me paraphrasing The Doobie Brothers, acapella , a day later…and I hate The Doobie Brothers.