JAWS: Why The Identity Of Amity Island Creates The Story

 On The Movie Breakdown podcast, there have been many times that Christopher and myself praise movies for making the location a character.  This means that where the film is set intermixes with the story and has purpose.  Sadly, there are so many films where the location actually doesn't matter.  Those films could have been set anywhere because there is no real connection to the locality.

On a recent rewatching of Jaws I revelled in the care and attention that had been paid in this area.  I always believed that the island of Amity was fluid and important to the plot, but not as much as I noticed on this most recent viewing.  Jaws was the very first movie that I remember being addicted to and obsessed about.  I sure did watch Star Wars a lot, but Jaws was the film that I just couldn't escape.  

Through incalculable viewings, I never paid proper attention to the detail of the community of people on Amity.  The island itself is one of the most important characters in the film, and if it wasn't so well fleshed out the film would lose a lot of its impact.

After the opening kill sequence and once we've established police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is new to the community, he heads to the beach to investigate a missing swimmer from the night before.  In the conversation with a male who had gone with her to the beach, Brody asks where he is from.  He lives on the mainland, but his parents were born on Amity.  His claim is that he is an islander.  I never really payed attention to that one single line, but it is setting up a massive part of the story.

I have lived in a small town.  There is something about the charm and pace of life that really appeals to me.  After a total of nine years, I wasn't anywhere close to be considered a local.  My wife's family moved to that area when she was just six years old, and there could be debate around whether she is or isn't a local.  When there is a tourism industry, communities like to take pride in ownership and heritage of their community.  This is on full display in Jaws.

When it seems confirmed that there was a fatal shark attack, Brody doesn't hesitate to take action and shut down the beaches.  However, this is a tourist community and the 4th of July is right around the corner.  If the beaches are closed, all locals will be affected.  The tourism season is short, and it is how people make their money for a full year.  Even a closing of one week could destroy the bank accounts of the residents.  The tension is between doing what he believes is right and what the community sees as necessary to their survival.

He is, without doubt, not one of the people.  There is no appropriate respect for him, as he is just seen as someone who has parachuted in and landed in a position of authority over people he simply does not understand.  His decisions are questioned, and the perspective is that he truly does not understand what he is doing.

An often vilified character in the film is Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), who continually pressures Brody to keep the beaches open.  His character ended up being a trope in many films, the politician who looks at money over safety.  This is always an easy go-to for movies, and a really effective way to set up the antagonist of the film.  

The interesting thing is that in Jaws, Vaughn isn't actually a villain.  He is misguided, but he sure isn't an antagonist.  As an elected official, he is merely voicing the concerns of those who elected him.  The general public's views are made clear, and Vaughn is simply considering them, even though they are ultimately miscalculated.  Vaughn's only crime is standing up for his community, and it pains him greatly when he sees his error.

Brody has no choice but to abandon his convictions and do what is requested of him.  His voice has no weight, and he isn't properly respected.  When things get worse, he is the one who is blamed even though he was the only person trying to stop future shark attacks.  He is in a lose-lose situation, and the full weight of all of the failures falls upon him.

This aspect of being an outsider continues into the second half of the film when Brody, Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), and Quint (Robert Shaw) head out to sea to catch and kill the shark.  Just like on land, Brody is an outsider.  The ocean is the very core of the other two's personalities and passions.  

Through all of the situations, Brody isn't listened to.  He is ignored and treated like an idiot.  Once again, just like on land, actions that he wanted to take would have actually been the smartest decision.  His character arc is one of inadequacy, fear, and acceptance.  In the end, he succeeds in killing the shark, a deed that will finally gain him respect.  Throughout the film, he is beaten down all because he is an outsider.

The aspect of Brody not being one of the people is why this story even plays out in the first place.  Had he been born on the island and wanted to shut down the beaches after the first fatal attack, there is a chance that his decision would have been respected.  He would have been one of them, looking out for his people.  The shark would have moved on and Amity could still have a tourism season, even if it was shortened.  Or perhaps Brody would have sought out a solution that was the best of both worlds.  Either way, the story would have been one hundred percent different if the importance of the island community wasn't what it was.