Nevermind that great white sharks are generally harmless, The Shallows asks you to suspend reality for an hour and half of pure summer fun. Nancy (Blake Lively), a young beautiful surfer, travels to a secret beach in Mexico to pay homage to her dead mother and then she's attacked by a huge shark. Nancy stitches a gaping leg wound with a pair of diamond climber earrings. Nancy seeks refuge on a dying whale. Nancy befriends a seagull and helps reset it's tiny broken wing. Nancy's poorly supported halter string bikini never moves half an inch.
The Shallows is absurd and terrifying and it is never ever going to win an Oscar, the perfect cotton candy flick to watch on a sleepy summer afternoon. It had a hell of an opening weekend, making back $16.7 of its (very modest) $17 million budget. And the reason for that success, like it or not, is the bland, blonde actress that Hollywood has deemed so inoffensive you can't help but root for her: Blake Lively.
Blake Lively isn't really controversial. Even when she does things that are truly stupid—like get married on a Carolina plantation, or make fairly racist comments about her "Oakland booty"—the criticism rolls off. She's too blonde, too tan, too American, too beautiful, too bland to be mad at for long.
The powers at be (notably white men with a lot of Hollywood money) have decided the Blake Lively is inoffensive, and so she will be billed as such. As Teo Bugbee wrote for MTV News last week:
She’s Jennifer Aniston without the sarcasm, Cameron Diaz without the goofiness, Gwyneth Paltrow without the snobbishness, Reese Witherspoon without the ambition. Congratulations, Hollywood. You’ve done it. The search is over. You’ve found the perfect woman — all blonde and no edges, so smooth it’s like she’s not even there.
Lively couldn't even get a lifestyle brand to succeed in a world where millions of people are desperate for new images to add to Pinterest boards. She feels like a woman so far away from us (so rich, so happy) that she's completely untouchable.
She is never frazzled, never frizzy. She does not fall on the red carpet. She always smiles. But part of that projection of distance and perfection has been helped by the roles she has played. For almost the entirety of Lively's career, she has been asked to play mysterious and secretive women hiding behind a perfect head of hair.
Her debut as Bridget Vreeland in Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants gave her a character so swamped with grief over her mother's suicide that she self-reveals that a therapist called her "single-minded to the point of recklessness." Her next big role, as Serena van der Woodsen on Gossip Girl was supposed to be so beautiful and pampered and privileged that she was barely given a personality at all. And her most recent box office success came in Age of Adeline, where she played an ageless woman keeping her life and her history secret. It was a movie riddled with problems that garnered it only a 54% on Rotten Tomatoes, but made money.
In all of these rolls Lively was stuck straddling the line between beautiful and mysterious and beautiful and downright boring. Every character she plays is somehow unknowable, and so the actress herself never really has to try and make us believe her. What makes a brilliant actor—a Meryl Streep or a Cate Blanchett or a Jennifer Lawrence—is what they do in the moments they have to spare. It's a grimace , or a body shift, or a twinkle in an eye. A great actress needs space to shine.
A mediocre actress then, or even a good actress, needs less space. She needs a tightly regimented role, a careful plot. In other words, she needs a very good director, and Lively's found a perfect match in Jaume Collet-Serra, the Spanish filmmaker behind the haunting dopey horror flick Orphan.
In The Shallows, Lively succeeds because what sell isn't an everlasting life, or a pair of magically fitting pants, but pain and fear. She is shot from above clinging to a rock, from below while she swims through the surf, from underneath as she stitches her own leg back together. When she speaks to her family on the phone, or the other surfers, her dialogue is tight. And in those scenes she's even funny: this good little blonde surfer girl stuck on a rock talks to a bird she's named Steven Seagull.
Lively isn't in a space in her career right now where she can carry a drama. We saw this in Age of Adeline where her beauty and mystery gave off an almost ridiculous air. But here, in The Shallows, she has found a format that undeniably works. She climbs a whale carcass and swims through a terrifying ocean chased by a great white shark. She is given something to do aside from standing there and looking pretty. Her beauty is sometimes replaced with blood and she truly can shine.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.