This article contains spoilers.
Audience members — an unexpected number of them — who went to their local multiplex to catch The Shallows this weekend doubtless expected a mere Blake Lively-heavy shark film. They were lucky enough to wind up with a pretty sick bird film as well.
In almost every sense, The Shallows — an expressionistic mash-up of Jaws, Blue Crush and the recent output of Terence Malick — was exactly what the trailer promised. Most of the climactic moments were included in the promotional clips. But no one could have foreseen that this modest film’s other main (and arguably better) character would be a charming little seagull with a wounded wing. “Steven Seagull,” as he’s dubbed, is a hilarious visual centerpiece and a stoic counterpoint to Lively’s lapsed med student and surfer vagabond Nancy.
While she’s making makeshift tourniquets for her Dead Alive-looking shark wounds, and doing esoteric stopwatch calculations, Steve, her strange bedfellow, is just a fucking bird: hopping around to different parts of the tiny rock on which he and Lively spend most of the film. He gets a lot of screen time; in his raw reactivity to the shark machinations going on around them, he delivers as good, if not a better performance, than Lively.
Essentially, the bloody-winged little dude is the Wilson of The Shallows: structurally, an excuse for Lively to logically get few more lines in. He’s also one of the most delightfully implausible parts of the movie: the perfect embodiment of its freewheeling, just-accept-that-this-is-happening spirit.
One of the weirdest turns in the film is when Nancy, just starting to get loopy from hunger, loss of blood, and sun stroke, tries to snap the seagull’s wing into place, while talking to it like one of her medical patients. Of course, the scene sets up the possibility of her bashing his skull in and chowing down — the logical thing to do, perhaps. But this seagull’s vibes are too good; if I were Lively, I’d have fed myself to the shark just to spare him, if I had to.
Another great moment is Lively’s eventual decision to help save the bird from the shark’s wrath when high tide comes in (The wing procedure does nothing to help him). But Lively sends him floating off on a half-chewed-up surfboard toward the shore — hopefully to safety. We watch Steve just tottering around that board, as if that shark (who Lively’s character does not deign to name) couldn’t just poke his head up and pick him off for a snack.
The most satisfying moment of the film is Lively, when she finally gets ashore, blearily spotting Steve hopping around the beach. Life is just luck, really. We’re all the same when we’re staring down the barrel of the gun, or at a shark teething on a thieving, drunk Latino man (yeah, The Shallows can get problematic when it wants to).
The thing is, with that busted wing situation, you know Steve is not going to live long. You don’t need to find any Google results on the issue to know a little guy like that needs to fly to get his nourishment.
So seeing Steve saved on the beach is a bittersweet moment. Lively will surf again — even after the gangrene, garish scar, and the fact that she should, rightfully, never want to visit the ocean ever again. Steve, however, is definitely not long for the world. Lively, happy to see him ashore, doesn’t even seem to consider this fact. Judging by the film’s epilogue, she doesn’t take him back to Galveston as a pet, or to some place where he could get some real help.
The Shallows may have quotations from the Jaws orchestral score between its sunny EDM-pop and avant-classical cues, to draw attention to the fact that it is just a simple shark action film in a long line of them. However, it’s also an excellent, quotidian portrait of bird life. In many ways, the Steve subplot — his endless hopping in and out of danger — is a rawer, and more affecting picture of the survival instinct than Lively’s. Give my man Steve all the awards.