[Review] – The Bay

13 Nov

Title: The Bay
Year: 2012
Director: Barry Levinson
Writer: Michael Wallach
Starring: Kristen Connolly, Jane McNeill, Anthony Reynolds, Kether Donohue
MPAA Rating: R, disturbing violent content, bloody images and language
Runtime: 84 min
IMDb Rating: 5.6
Rotten Tomatoes: 75%
Metacritic: 66

I think it’s impossible not to start a review of The Bay without saying that it’s a found-footage horror movie from Barry Levinson, an Academy Awardwinning director we associate with Rain Man, Bugsy or Good Morning, Vietnam and not with a single horror movie. And it kind of shows here, that this is a director who doesn’t come from a line of genre specialists, something that I mean more in a good way than I do in a bad one. He comes to the movie with the characters and the narrative structure in mind more than he does with just plain scares, not to mention that he knows how to create a really effective atmosphere.

The film, which first premiered at this year’s TIFF, is set in a small Maryland town that thrives on water. Two French researchers then find this huge level of toxicity and they try to alert the mayor but he refuses to do anything about it so as to not cause a panic. As you might imagine, things don’t go smoothly and The Bay uses the found-footage filmmaking style that’s so popular right now to tell the story.

What we’re told is that on Independence Day back in 2009 a two million fishes washed ashore and a thousand blackbirds fell from the sky, but that the authorities had done everything to cover up the real truth. That whole toxicity thing turned into a deadly plague, harboring a mutant breed of a parasite that claimed over 700 human lives. And you get all these stories told from web cams to iPhones to 911 calls documenting what went down exactly during that horrible day and find out about this ghastly cover-up.

What surprised me the most is that I actually thought this was quite decent. I mean, I guess it’s unsurprising because Mr. Levinson clearly knows his stuff, but surprising because him doing this genre in this particular style (and with the help of the Paranormal Activity producers, no less) was something I didn’t think would ever quite work. There’s obviously stuff that’s not great about this movie (the ending, especially), but I thought Mr. Levinson took the limitations of the style and played with them effectively, delivering a few nice chills and, more importantly, actually making it feel real, he made it easier to buy into this story because it really did feel like people actually reported this.

That coming from the fact that Mr. Levinson and his editor, Aaron Yanes, do a really good job at mixing up the different kinds of media footage at hand here, using the different textures (both visually and audibly) to create a retelling of those 24 hours in the small town. The explanation we get is that the government to conceal the truth from the public confiscated any kind of evidence of the catastrophe and just now the lid is being blown off by a Wikileaks kind of website. All of this told by Donna, a reporter who was assigned to do a fluff special on the Fourth of July holidays and got this instead, the story of a lifetime, and we cut from the found-footage to her interviewing the clearly guilty mayor.

Evidently, as you may have gathered, this film has a whole ecological agenda in play, which I thought was all the more timely because of the recent events of hurricane Sandy. Yes, I know climate has nothing to do with the stuff , but still, it was timely to me. In fact the ecological agenda is such a big part of The Bay that originally Mr. Levinson wanted only to make an eco-doc about the Chesapeake Bay but (correctly) assumed that those movies, which are coming out more and more nowadays, only really get to be seen by a small number of people who usually are already invested in the issue at hand.

What he then came up with was the idea of making this movie, a fictional story that could be filmed on a low budget and that, being helped by being shot in the style du jour, would be seen by more people, young people, to whom he could transmit his message. That message is not that by dumping chicken in the seas we’ll produce a new killer species, but it’s that our actions in regards to the environment have consequences, and we shouldn’t act all surprised when those consequences don’t please us.

I won’t go into every story we’re presented with here through all the different devices used to capture the tale, just let it be known that the actors all do their jobs pretty damn well and that Mr. Levinson pays more attention to the characters than your average found-footage flick (still not nearly enough, but a considerable improvement; he did what he could). You could say that Mr. Levinson fails in that he actually doesn’t deliver all that many scares and is more about just setting an atmosphere, but you still have to give it to him for constructing a full narrative with a larger number of characters than most horror films can even attempt to balance and doing it all nicely.

I’m recommending The Bay, perhaps not to diehard horror fans which won’t be scared all that much and will (justifiably) be upset at that abrupt ending that didn’t do it for me. But I recommend it because it’s interesting to see such an established director do this big a 180 to craft a film like this and make decided improvements upon a worn-out formula. Not to mention that the real horror comes from the ecological stuff, from what our neglect can cause and from this worst case scenario which, yes, is a bit too extreme, but still, the point comes across.

Grade: B-

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