An Appreciation – Jaws
The best horror films are about the survivors, not the killers. Many lesser filmmakers approach horror in the opposite fashion. When a narrative sides with a mindless killer, the film drops into sadism. There is no joy to be had when a film simply roots for the victims to die. But when it empathizes with dynamic characters, that’s where it has the potential to be great. Halloween (1978), The Thing (1982), Alien (1979), Dawn of the Dead (1978), The Exorcist (1973) – these are all classics partly because they have memorable characters that we connect with. We become invested in their well-being, so that when the danger finally arrives we cling to the edges of our seats hoping to see them make it out alive. Jaws falls squarely into this category.
Because the shark has no personality outside of being an eating machine, we must rely on the characters to keep us glued in. Luckily, we are given some of the best and most distinctive character building here. Everyone is unique, with their own traits, quirks, and motivations. The oceanographer Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) helps explain the science about the shark and uses his knowledge to help clear up much of the confusion going on around the community. He investigates the shark attacks to prevent another from happening, but maybe also to satisfy his own curiosity. A small but significant instance is when Hooper explains to Brody that a shark captured by local fisherman is probably not the one that has attacked civilians due to the small radius of the mouth. Dreyfuss has an excellent way of playing the character. Hooper has a keen scientific mind but that is the very thing that keeps the community from believing his warnings.
Brody is the emotional center, and Roy Scheider fills the part with a mix of authority and reluctance. He has an obligation to do the right thing as the newly appointed sheriff, but his willingness to compromise and back down to the mayor’s wishes to keep the beach open shows a vulnerability that makes him all the more human. We see this side of him at the dinner table with his son. Despite feeling dejected, he still has the ability within himself to play a game and make funny faces to keep the child amused. It’s evidence of Scheider’s skill as an actor and Spielberg’s abilities as a director to make this scene a necessary moment. Brody’s humanity is put to the test when he first witnesses a shark attack. Scheider’s facial reaction, mixed with Bill Butler’s cinematography and Verna Fields’ editing – reveals Brody’s shock and horror that something he could have prevented came to fruition. It’s that very regret and guilt that motivates him to hop on a boat and hunt the shark down.
Quint is the kind of character who seems to exist as a mythical being, beyond the constraints of film itself. Robert Shaw imbues Quint with the weight of an entire lifetime on his shoulders. We take one look at him and we can surmise that he has seen and done too much throughout the years. He’s a hard-edged fisherman who speaks through clenched teeth; in a past life he could have been a pirate. But behind the tough exterior lies a person haunted by tragedy. It’s no wonder that Quint’s speech to Hooper and Brody – involving the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis during WWII – is considered one of the great movie monologues of all time. Pay attention to the way Shaw not only says the words with perfect precision, but how often he pauses. Shaw takes his time, turning down both the volume of his voice and the speed in which he speaks. It’s as though the slower and quieter he goes, the more chilling his story becomes.
We can’t talk about Jaws without giving credit to John Williams’ iconic score. In fact that rhythmic sound, that appears to increase in tempo the further it goes along, maybe responsible for half of the film’s success. Where many other composers create music as though it were atmosphere, Williams takes the score and makes sure we are aware of its presence. It works much like a scare scene, building in anticipation before the terror is finally let loose. Williams is one of the greatest composers we’ve ever, or will ever see. It’s my belief that hundreds of years from now, the music that Williams used to back so many memorable pictures will be held in the same regard as Beethoven, Bach, or Mozart. His melodies and compositions have a way of staying with us, evoking a mood that is instantly recognizable with a few notes. His work on Jaws cuts right into the heart of what Spielberg was going for. As soon as we hear the music, we’re placed back in the middle of that ocean, trying desperately to escape as that shark stalks us from underneath the surface.
Looking back, the shark itself may not look all that realistic, but the work of the cast and crew still makes Jaws one of most convincing horror film ever made. The material was treated earnestly, honestly, without any kind of self-awareness or cynicism. Spielberg proved with his skill with cinematic language that he could garner thrills despite his main subject being mostly off screen. Brody’s reaction to finally seeing the shark pop out of the water – whipping his entire body backward – is the perfect culmination of everything Spielberg was building up to. Yes, Spielberg may have helped usher in the age of the blockbuster, but he did so with the finesse of a master artist. Where so many others use big budget filmmaking to cheapen and trivialize cinema, Spielberg enriched it.