Director: Matt Eskandari
Starring: Alexandra Park, Nora-Jane Noone, Diane Farr, Tobin Bell
Running Time: 85 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Buried. Phone Booth. ATM. Frozen. Open Water. The Shallows. 127 Hours. All largely single location survival thrillers that test its actors and filmmakers, pushing their ingenuity and skill to limit in order sustain viewers' attention under the sparsest of circumstances. Their plots could each be summed up in only a couple of words, but with fewer tools at their disposal, they frequently stretch out that meager description to 90 minutes or longer, a number that in many cases is pushing it. Sometimes as trying for audiences as those directly involved in the project, it's one of the toughest sub-genres to successfully pull off and the aforementioned titles probably fall within the same realm of quality. Now joining them is Matt Eskandari's 12 Feet Deep (formerly titled The Deep End), which features a premise so hilariously bizarre that when I accidentally discovered its trailer, I actually thought it was a spoof of some sort. But not only is it deadly serious, it's at least partially based on true events. Its official logline reads exactly as this:
"Two sisters are unwittingly trapped under the fiberglass cover of an Olympic sized public pool and must brave the cold and each other to survive the harrowing night"
This is definitely a new one, and as ridiculous as the concept reads on paper, you'll still have to concede there's something oddly intriguing about the scenario, or rather the idea that someone's even attempting it. Can an entire movie take place within the confines of an enclosed swimming pool? With only two characters? And no sharks? Released wide into theaters this past June (directly against the Mandy Moore shark cage thriller, 47 Meters Down) that this has been inexplicably sold as a horror movie is just another reminder that anything with anyone trapped anywhere is marketed as "horror." And while it is terrifying and suspenseful, it's really more of a claustrophobic morality play or character study in which two women must survive each other and a sociopathic antagonist. While it easily draws comparisons to other self-contained thrillers of the sort, it does certain things better while working with a whole lot less. By believably writing itself out of corners it has little business escaping from, the extremely well-acted, tightly directed chamber piece is no joke at all, making surprisingly efficient and inspired use of our 85 minutes.
Rebellious, quick-tempered Jonna (Alexandra Park) is meeting up with her estranged sister, the newly engaged Bree (Nora-Jane Noone), at the Ketea Aquatic Center's indoor public swimming pool, both trying to put their childhood differences behind them for a late afternoon swim before the facility closes for the holiday weekend. But when Bree unexpectedly loses her engagement ring and the pool's cranky manager (Tobin Bell) rushes to close the fiberglass cover believing everyone's gone, the girls get trapped.
With a 1-foot gap separating the water and the lid, and only a small rectangular hole in the cover providing air, the sisters have to find a method of escape or eventually perish in a watery tomb. While it seems their only hope of rescue will come from janitor Clara (Diane Farr), the bitter ex-con instead uses their predicament as an opportunity for blackmail, physically and emotionally toying with the girls as the clock runs out. Working together, the sisters struggle to put their deep-seeded differences aside to formulate an alternate plan before it's too late.
This bare-bones, single location scenario would appear to be the ideal set-up for some kind of horror thriller, maybe with a former swim coach with a hook for a hand locking two girls in a pool and torturing them. Just the mere presence of Tobin Bell in an early cameo as the facility manager only has us suspecting the new Saw film arrived early with a Jigsaw trap, which would at least provide enough action to fill up a good chunk of its story. But it's instead a clever misdirection proving the movie's smarter than that, relying instead on the intensity of human drama, emerging organically from the personalities immersed in this terrifying situation.
How Jonna and Bree get trapped is surprisingly believable considering how absurd the notion must seem to anyone who's ever swam in an indoor pool. On one hand, it's a silly accident they could happen to anyone and was cribbed from true events. But the circumstances also work on another level that sets up the animosity between these two very different siblings, stemming from a childhood tragedy that still consumes them. Already at each others throats, they become the perfect mark for ex-con Clara, who's built up a lifetime of resentment and has enough problems that there's good reason to fear her holding the cards.
Eskandari is adept at exploiting the limited set and claustrophobic atmosphere to its maximum potential, often changing up lighting and shot selection, but in a way that makes sense within the context of the narrative, allowing the viewer to escape the potential monotony of a single location. He comes up with just enough solutions, and while it would be impossible to keep the action in the pool without taking some creative liberties, he manages to keep the manipulations to a minimum. While there's a subplot involving diabetic Bree's insulin shot that's meant to lend further urgency to the proceedings, it's factually incorrect enough to be distracting. As far as effectively piling on complications in a race against time, you just accept it and move on. A superior roadblock is the character of Clara, whose presence is most obviously the added wrench in the equation.
Far from some sneering, one-dimensional villain, Diane Farr's antagonist has a conscience, history and twisted motivation to what she's doing, almost as if she literally can't help herself. And because of the limits imposed, the performances of the three actresses are only that much more crucial in creating that tension. As Jonna, Alexandra Park undergoes a rather believable transformation from angry, recovering addict to protective sister, forced to hunker down and overcome her considerable demons and petty jealousy to fight for their survival. Nora Jane-Noone gives the more reserved, cerebral Bree a tidy, organized facade as the "good sister," but as their situation wears down, so does she, physically spent from her medical condition and even more emotionally drained by the childhood trauma she's suppressed.
What's refreshing about the third act is how the story believably resolves itself. There's no eleventh hour deus ex machina or improbable coincidence that saves them from near-certain death. But the highest compliment that can be paid the screenplay is that you really do get the feeling Eskandari would kill everyone off if it served the story. Because the characters are clearly defined, so are their actions, creating a plausible chain of events that concludes in a way that feels both appropriate and logical. Like most single location thrillers, 12 Feet Deep creates a heightened reality where people find within themselves the will to survive. It may not be a profound statement in the genre, but by intelligently working its way around a head-scratching premise, it definitely stands out from the pack.