Jaws

Jaws ★★★★★

Jaws feels like an epic in its stark simplicity. There's nothing between the shark and the men who go out to look for it: no technology, no massive weapons, no interference. Just three men in a boat hunting a monster, only to realize that the monster is hunting them.

I'm tempted to try and fit some sort of meaning to Jaws - I've got a half-baked theory about it being a metaphor for capitalism, and then there's the inevitable Moby Dick and Ahab comparison - but I think it defeats the point of a film as pure and focused as Jaws.

Jaws is incredible cinematic storytelling. Everything in the film builds up to a relentless sense of terror, and the fact that we don't see the shark until the very end makes no difference to us. In fact, it makes the threat seem far more real, because humans are most afraid of things we cannot see.

The music score by John Williams becomes a brilliant substitute for the physical presence of the shark. Every time we hear those stabbing chords, we see the shark. And soon, Williams' music begins to work the way a great film score should: you stop noticing the music consciously, and it begins to send you subliminal cues.

The dialogue is simple and brusque, avoiding the pitfalls of the false artsy lines that spout from anybody out at sea. The cinematography is beautiful, but like the music score, it becomes a vehicle for the story instead of drawing attention to itself. In fact, everything about Jaws works beautifully as a whole. The focus here was evidently to tell a story first and foremost.

Monster movies are built around the monster, but Jaws is primarily about people. The three characters in the film seem completely real and autonomous, and because we've already gotten to know them by the time they go out to sea, it's even more interesting to watch how they deal with each other and the shark.

These characters never need to fully explain themselves; they just are. We don't know why the police chief Brody is afraid of water, just as it's never explicitly made known to us that Quint is exacting a twisted form of revenge on the sharks he hunts or why Hooper goes out to sea despite knowing just how dangerous the shark really is.

And the three men are performed wonderfully by the lead actors. They truly become their characters, making you forget that they are, after all, actors in a movie. By the time we get to that brilliant monologue by Quint and the camaraderie between the three men in the boat's gallery, we relate to them so fully that the ensuing tragedies feel intensely horrifying.

Jaws has got it all: complex characters that share a shifting group dynamic, a spare story of epic quality, an ever-building mood, and the sort of cohesive filmmaking you only get to see once in a while. Jaws is the rare film in which everything works. And the fact that Steven Spielberg avoids all temptation to create some sort of heavy-handed parable allows the film to work independently of the era it was made in.

Jaws is timeless. I envy the moviegoers of the seventies - in one decade, they got several masterpieces from Coppola, Spielberg, Scorsese, and so many other auteurs who made films without speaking down to audiences. I've never seen a modern summer blockbuster as great as Jaws, and I doubt I ever will.

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