Jaws is a story about men.
You start watching Jaws and you are following a girl who is a loner and reckless and maybe a little drunk. She is not part of the group of young people around the fire—she is on her own, and she runs, and she takes her clothes off, and you can’t really see what she looks like naked but you can see what she looks like in the sea. And the music starts, and the boy running after her lies down in the sand, and you know what is about to happen.
This is not a story about that girl, or about the mother who loses her son and shows up in black to slap Chief Brody in the face, or about the wife who loves her pent-up, anxious, striving husband and is scared for him but wants him to do whatever it is he needs to do. This is a story about men. This is a story about three men who go out on the ocean trying to figure out who they are and who they have the potential to be.
This is a story about Quint and Brody and Hooper. The man who distrusts authority, the man who is authority, and the man who wants authority. The man who owns the boat and the man who is wary of the boat and the man who drives the boat. The man with no fear, the man who has always feared, and the man who does not yet understand what fear is.
There is something about all of these men that is simultaneously idealistic and true (which could perhaps be a description of much of Spielberg’s work). Quint (Robert Shaw) at first seems to be a pure male fantasy—both recklessly self-destructive and an expert in his own particular brand of reckless self-destruction. He kills sharks. He doesn’t listen to other men. He sings dirty songs about women. He is utterly in charge of his own destiny. He has scars.
But yes, he has scars, not all of them visible. He followed orders that were given to him by men in air-conditioned offices, he watched thousands of men die around him, he delivered the bomb. He survived. And when, towards the end of the film, he tries to lure the shark into shallower waters, opening up the throttle, pushing the damaged vessel far beyond its capacity, it is not reckless self-destruction at work: it’s the understanding of the nearness of death, of the sacrifice required. It’s maybe a little bit of loneliness. You see Quint at that moment come unhinged and you know he is crossing a threshold you won’t get him back from.
(The hand scratching at the chalkboard. The rows and rows of polished aquatic jaws and nowhere comfortable to sit.)
—Elizabeth Cantwell on Jaws, “It’s Only An Island If You Look At It From The Water” (Bright Wall/Dark Room Magazine, August 2014)