The Unluckiest People Alive, by Kyle Anderson
Some taglines for the new sci-fi/thriller, The Divide, could easily have been something like “The End Was Just the Beginning,” or “When the World Ends, the Terror Begins,” or something like that; something clichéd and hackneyed. The actual tagline is, “The Lucky Ones Died in the Blast,” which is about as appropriate a tagline as there has ever been. It not only harkens back to the tagline to Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (“The Lucky Ones Die First”), but also sums up the feeling the audience has at the end of the film. If this is really what we have to look forward to, I’ll be outside. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Divide is the new film from French filmmaker Xavier Gens, whose previous credits include the wonderful, gritty horror film, Frontiers, and the paint-by-numbers video game adaptation, Hitman. It was the former that got me very excited to see The Divide. Frontiers was an intense, suspenseful gorefest involving French youth running afoul of Nazi cannibals in the country. I was expecting a similar type of film from Gens’ next outing, but was pleasantly surprised when I was wrong, to a degree. The Divide still has all the gut-wrenching tension of the earlier film, but tones down the outright gore in favor of something far more sinister and disturbing – People NOT killing each other.
The film follows a group of New Yorkers as they attempt to flee the city during a nuclear attack. Their neighborhood is being devastated and the only way they survive is by forcing their way into the building’s basement/bomb shelter built by the super, Mickey, played by Michael Biehn in an inspired performance. Mickey, we learn later, was a 9/11 fireman who lost his wife and has since developed a suspicion and hatred of the government, the world, and basically everyone. He begrudgingly allows the other survivors, eight in total, to stay in his fortress with the understanding that they abide by his rules. It seems easy enough, though some leather-clad punks (Milo Ventimiglia, Michael Eklund, and Ashton Holmes) seem immediately discontent. When the military happens upon them, and the survivors learn that they were certainly not going to be rescued, the real bad stuff starts to happen. The already claustrophobic layer begins to feel smaller and smaller as one by one each of them starts to mistrust each other and go insane.
This isn’t a new concept, people trying to survive after the world is destroyed, but what makes this take in it so fresh is just how dark it becomes. We’re never told exactly why or who is attacking the U.S. and the few scenes with the military only serve to create more mystery that never gets answered, and while this is intriguing, the film is about its characters, not the circumstances. These are people who would not and should not get along if left to their own devices, and guess what: They don’t. A couple of these people shouldn’t even be allowed to be out in public. Everything takes such a dark turn and we witness people doing utterly vile and repulsive things to each other. But, unlike my initial preconception, this is not a horror movie, at least not in the traditional sense. There is not one singular psychopath or mutated monster trapped with them which they all have to band together to save. This is a story about the horror of surviving, the mistrust of fellow humans, and the depths to which people sink when they’ve lost all hope.
This is a film which has no heroes, which is something I both like and dislike about it. From the opening frame, we’re lead to believe that Eva, played by Lauren German, is going to be the heroine of this film, and in a lot of ways she is. She seems strong, unflappable, and level-headed which is why when shit starts to go down, and she does almost nothing to prevent it, it’s a bit jarring. This is a bit frustrating, especially when even the dark turn takes a dark turn, but upon reflection, it’s pretty realistic. She’s a good person overall, but a lot of times during tough situations, good people do nothing. We’d like to think we’d act when needed, but that doesn’t always happen. Her final decision, which I of course will not be spoiling here, is a gut-punch to those of us hoping she’d do the heroic thing, but likely she did the “real” thing. Milo Ventimiglia’s character, Josh, seems as though he’d become a hero, doing heroic things toward the beginning, despite his tough-guy attitude and when it becomes clear that he isn’t, it seems like Ashton Holmes’ character, Adrien, would fill that role, though he does less than Eva. If you’re going into this movie looking for heroes, you’ve come to the wrong place.
The cast does a very good job with the tough material, but particular standouts are Michael Eklund and Rosanna Arquette. Arquette plays Marilyn, a devoted mother who completely loses the will to live once she loses her daughter early in the film. Watching her mournfully scream is heartbreaking, but watching her complete psychological collapse afterwards is worse. Eklund plays Bobby, the creepiest and most outwardly sadistic of the punks. When it becomes apparent that someone will have to chop up a dead body for health purposes (won’t say how the person dies), Bobby is the one who excitedly offers to do it, but once the deed is done, and he realizes the grotesqueness of what he’s done, he too loses his mind, slowly. Marilyn and Bobby find solace in each other which quickly turns sexual and then disgustingly dysfunctional. Almost every time either of them are onscreen after a certain point, it gets harder and harder to watch, but the actors are nevertheless believable and brave for going to that place.
Xavier Gens’ direction is fantastic, and he brings the same frenetic, European style he displayed in Frontiers to this film. Working in such a limited space, he is able to move the camera fluidly to get the most out of it. He also makes the bunker another character in the film. Though it is a dank subbasement, toward the beginning of the film he makes it seem almost homey and inviting and then through lighting and camera lens changes, he makes it much more ominous and imposing, reflecting the waning sanity of the people within. There are shots in various points in the film where we see the carnage and the aftermath of the nuclear attack, which is all done with CGI. While it does look like CGI which is always a drawback, this is due to it being a very low budget film and it looks quite good under the circumstances. The version of the film that was screened for critics was the director’s cut which ran just over two hours, versus the apparent theatrical cut which is about ten minutes shorter. Exactly what was cut out, I don’t know, but I did feel the length ever so slightly in the middle leading up to the end. It probably could stand to lose a few minutes, but overall this wasn’t an issue.
The Divide is a film about people dealing with a very limited version of life after a horrible global catastrophe and quickly finding that it’s worse. The title speaks not only to the divide that separates the basement from the outside, but also the ever-growing divide between strangers when forced to co-exist. There is a question of the time frame this film inhabits. While I assumed it took place over a few weeks, most of the promotional material says it takes place over several days. I found that a bit far-fetched. Would these people really become this deranged and this horrible to one another over only a few days? But, how would I know? How would any of us know how we’d react if put in the same situation. I’d like to think I could get along if necessary, but none of us can say for sure. If everyone you knew was dead and all the places and things you loved were completely destroyed, if your whole life now consisted of sharing limited food and water with eight people in a basement, who could say they wouldn’t react the same way? While not an easy movie to watch, it is a movie that deserves to be seen, if for no other reason than so that all of us can decide whether or not the lucky ones died in the blast.