Monday Movie: The Bay, by Tyler Smith

Every Monday, we’ll highlight a piece of writing from our vaults. This review of The Bay originally ran as a theatrical review.

There’s something immensely satisfying about an old pro taking on a new trend and showing the newbies how it’s done. Within the last several years, 3-D was something that only young horror directors dabbled in. Then esteemed directors such as James Cameron and Wim Wenders swooped in and set a new standard with the format. This is what Barry Levinson has done with his new film The Bay. I had grown very tired of found footage movies. More often than not, they are a cynical studio executive’s way to capitalize on a popular, inexpensive filmmaking trend. And the end result seems to be that, for every Blair Witch Project, there are ten Bigfoot: The Lost Coast Tapes.  Thankfully, this film manages to avoid all the traps that seem to be inherent in the found footage genre.

The story is pretty basic.  Back in 2009, we all saw the strange images of thousands of dead fish and birds.  What Levinson’s film suggests is that we were fed an official story by the government and that the truth is far more disturbing.  In actuality, along with the fish and birds, hundreds of people died grisly, horrible deaths, brought on by a toxic combination of chemicals dumped in Chesapeake Bay.  As the hospital fills up, one young reporter attempts to make sense of what is happening.  She films as long as she can, but soon realizes that she needs to get out of town, before she falls victim to the same fate as the townspeople.

Perhaps the reason that The Bay works so well is that it feels so purposeful.  Where other found footage movies try to capture the chaos of a you-are-there feeling, often stretching the limits of what the characters will and won’t film, The Bay chooses instead to be a sort of mockumentary, using whatever bits and pieces of footage the filmmaker can find.  When watching these types of films, I often wonder, “Exactly who found this footage?  And how did they find it?”  With The Bay, rather than suspend our disbelief as we watch seemingly random pieces of shaky camera work that conveniently tell a three-act story, we get a director desperately trying to make sense of an event.  There is a sort of obsession to how the film is made, revealed in the different types of camera footage is included.  We get footage from phones, security tapes, and traffic cameras.  We get snippets of Skype conversations and panicked text messages.  We get news reports and police car surveillance.  Splicing together all of these types of footage tells us more about an increasingly obsessed filmmaker than dozens of scenes of “Don’t turn the camera off!  Keep filming!” ever could.

Along with the structure of the film, another thing that separates this film from other found footage thrillers is its surprising commitment to character.  Far too often, these movies choose to deal in archetypes.  There is the obsessed director, the cowardly nerd, the world weary expert, the vulnerable beauty.  These characters seldom deviate from what they are meant to do within the story, giving the supposedly immediate, random quality to the footage a predictable arc.

With The Bay, however, Levinson chooses to zero in on a few very real people, each in a very different situation.  Some characters know what’s happening, while others are completely clueless.  Some are right in the middle of the chaos, while others are totally removed and in no particular danger.  There are the people that simply want to survive and those that want to go deeper and get to the bottom of what’s going on.  But, no matter which character we are dealing with, we see the same look of futility spread across their faces.  For some, it happens right away.  For others, it takes hours.  But, sooner or later, everybody involved comes to grips with the horror they’re witnessing.

And perhaps that is one of the things I responded to the most in The Bay.  While other found footage horror movies use the tropes of the genre as an excuse for lazy storytelling, this film does exactly the opposite.  This film is treated as a sort of exposé of the terrifying events, and thus the filmmaker attempts to answer as many questions as possible.  While I’m all for the idea of the unknown being incredibly frightening, sometimes having the full story and knowing every excruciating detail can be pretty damned scary.

“We fear what we don’t understand,” as the saying goes.  Many horror movies- good and bad- accept this as truth and tell their stories accordingly.  However, this isn’t the last word on the matter.  Part of the terror of The Bay is the inevitability of it all.  As the characters stumble around, trying to piece together just how this could happen, they soon discover that their knowledge makes no difference.  It will not save them.  They can simply sit, wait, and watch as the world around them goes to Hell.

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