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Adrift in a sea of abandonment

'Open Water' is the latest in the left-behind genre to test characters' mettle and play off viewers' fears.

August 27, 2004|Deborah Hornblow | Hartford Courant

You are 4 years old and playing in the park. It is time to go, but you have other ideas. In the face of your parent's rising consternation, you toddle off in the opposite direction.

Then the magic, mind-bending words are deployed: "All right, go ahead," says your parent, who is beginning to turn away from you. "Go ahead, and I'll leave without you."

Leave without you. Your 4-year-old mind is quick to apprehend the ramifications. You are to be left behind. Cut loose. Abandoned. You about-face and toddle as fast as you can to the arms of the one who keeps you safe and fed and secure.

For years, filmmakers have exploited that universal and pervasive fear in movies that run the gamut from the laugh riot of "Home Alone" and the gleeful housewife's emancipation tale that is Italy's "Bread and Tulips" to the survival game of the military action film "Behind Enemy Lines" and the terror of today's shark tale "Open Water."

Comic, scary or horrific, films in the left-behind genre all begin with the events leading up to abandonment. In 1990's "Home Alone," parents mistakenly leave behind their youngest son, Kevin (Macaulay Culkin), when they make a hectic departure for a holiday vacation in Paris. In Silvio Soldini's 2000 comedy "Bread and Tulips," Licia Maglietta's Italian housewife Rosalba Barletta is accidentally left behind at a rest stop when the tourist bus carrying her Type-A husband and two oafish teenage sons departs without her. The fact that her absence aboard the bus goes unregistered by her family is the first clue that this under-appreciated wife and mother may not be so bad off without them.

John Moore's 2001 action picture "Behind Enemy Lines" is set near the end of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Owen Wilson's Navy navigator Chris Burnett is dispatched on a routine reconnaissance flight when he spots something suspicious beyond the flight path. When he and his pilot veer off to investigate, their plane is shot down. The pilot is caught and executed, leaving Burnett alone and on the run in hostile territory.

In "Open Water," which is based on a true story, a couple are left floating in the vast briny blue when the scuba boat they were on mistakenly leaves without them. The dive boat operators were keeping count of their charges, but director Chris Kentis shows how a mistake can get made in the math, one that leaves two divers in serious peril.

Left-behind movies are all constructed around a series of obstacles that must be overcome. The parties left behind are set against difficulties ranging from a lack of food or money to enemy fire and hungry sharks. How they cope and the outcome of their efforts set the tone of the movie they are in.

Culkin's Kevin must deal with feeding himself and fending off two bungling burglars. In "Bread and Tulips," Rosalba must deal with a sudden lack of transportation, money and a mission in life. Wilson's Burnett must outmaneuver the enemy and make tracks to a rescue site to stay alive. "Open Water's" couple, Daniel and Susan Kintner (Daniel Travis and Blanchard Ryan), must contend with physical and psychological threats including dehydration, panic, stinging jellyfish and schooling sharks.

Resourcefulness is the key to the fate of any character who is left behind.

Culkin's wee Kevin proves particularly adept at the game of survival. He raids his brother's piggy bank for food money, uses the soundtrack from a gangster movie on the VCR to frighten a pizza delivery guy and the would-be thieves, and burglar-proofs his house by using everything from mannequins and ropes and pulleys to sizzling hot doorknobs, gluey basement stairs, falling irons and tar and feathers. Rosalba's resourcefulness largely involves availing herself of the kindness of strangers, in particular, a dignified and courtly waiter who befriends her in Venice. "Behind Enemy Lines's" Burnett uses Army-issue weapons and gizmos -- guns, radios, explosives -- to keep himself alive. The couple in "Open Water" have fewer resources but manage to use swim fins, weight belts and hard candies to pass the long hours.

Each left-behind character experiences a range of emotions before the trial ends. Culkin's Kevin at first wanders his home, calling out for his family. Then it dawns on him that with everyone gone he can "eat junk and watch rubbish" to his heart's content. But when burglars begin casing the joint, his glee turns to scream-your-head-off terror that only gradually evolves into courage.

In "Bread and Tulips," Rosalba is initially stunned that her husband and sons could have departed without her. She has no money, no clothes and no means of catching up with the bus. She phones her husband, perhaps thinking he will manage the problem. But when he responds by yelling at her for missing the bus, she begins to wonder why she should return to him. When her agitation and compulsion to rejoin her family subside, her concern at being forgotten turns to excitement as she takes her first courageous steps toward a new life.

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