Playing Nice with The Descent, by Sarah Brinks
Thank you for reading “Playing Nice,” a series of articles that will examine group dynamics in film. I’m not a behavioral psychologist or anything but I am an avid movie watcher and life-long member/observer of the human race. One of the things that have fascinated me over the years is how group dynamics are depicted in film and especially how they are depicted when the thin veneer of society is stripped away.
**This article will contain spoilers. I highly recommend you watch the film first and then read the article if you care about spoilers.** The Descent is not only a hair-raising horror film playing out our worst fears about the dark, enclosed spaces and monsters but it is also a film that delves into a number of dynamic female relationships. The Descent is about a group of women who get together and take adventurous vacations, pushing their limits, and challenging each other. At the beginning of the film three of the friends: Sarah, Juno, and Beth are white water rafting. After the trip Sarah is driving home with her husband and daughter when they get into a tragic accident and Sarah’s husband and daughter are killed. A year later, Sarah and Beth join Juno and three other women for a weekend of cave exploring in North Carolina. The other three women are Holly, an Irish adrenaline junky, and Rebecca and Sam who are sisters.
Groups of women are often seen as/depicted in films as simply catty and judgmental. The Descent takes a refreshing stance and shows a much more realistic group dynamic. The women tease each other, they talk about their relationships, they talk about what matters to them, what drives them, and communicate in a true-to-life way. You see as some of them hold back from saying what they really think and some of them lie. You also see them treat Sarah with kid gloves after the accident. Once they are in the cave and they become trapped by a cave-in then the real honest feelings come out. Beth finally tells Juno what she thinks of her behavior towards Sarah and how selfish she thinks Juno is. Juno tells Sarah her motivations behind lying about which cave they are exploring.
The dynamics of the group shift after the cave-in and then shift again when they are separated. After the cave-in the women are much blunter with each other but also get right down to business. No one becomes hysterical or loses control; they buckle down and begin problem solving. That is not to say that these women are a prefect, idealized group, far from it. They certainly throw blame around and squabble amongst themselves but they know that they have to focus and work together to stay alive and get out the cave. They each bring a different skill to the table; Rebecca and Juno are the best climbers, Beth the teacher notices a cave painting that shows a second opening to the cave, and Sam is almost a doctor and able to patch them up as they get hurt.
Holly is the wild card in the group. She is only friends with Juno and is actively pushes peoples buttons in the group. She thinks the caves they are supposed to be exploring are too boring so she creates drama. She is a loose cannon and ends up getting herself terribly injured by plowing ahead and not listening to Juno. As a result of her injury she is the first of the women to be killed by the creatures that live in the cave.
Rebecca and Sam are sisters. Their familial bond outweighs anyone else in the cave once they get attacked. You see Sam get frustrated with Rebecca when they are first repelling into the cave system. Sam only wants her help in small doses. In the cave when the others are separated Rebecca and Sam stick together. The rest are all trying to find Sarah but Rebecca and Sam focus on keeping each other safe. Having this relationship in with all the other friendships is an interesting contrast because it is unwavering. No matter what either does they are unflinchingly loyal to each other and instinctively protect each other. Becca fights off one of the creatures to protect Sam and when they realize the creatures are attracted to sound, Sam says about Juno shouting, “as long as she doesn’t bring them to us”. They are both level headed women who will fight to survive. Sam is training to be a doctor and can stay calm when someone gets hurt unlike Beth who loses it. When they have to get across an underground ravine it is Rebecca who lead-climbs her way across so the rest can get across. They’re ability to stay calm when things go badly is a nice way for the film to show their similarities as sisters. Sadly it doesn’t keep them alive.
Sarah and Beth are best friends. Beth is the worrier of the group, she seems the least interested in the intense activities they do, and she is also the oldest of the group. Beth is very protective of Sarah because she was there with her through the loss of Sarah’s husband and daughter. Beth is able to talk Sarah out of a panic attack when she gets stuck in the cave, she recognizes Sarah’s pain is able to help her become calm and get herself free. Sarah is still struggling a year after the accident, we see her taking pills and hearing her daughters voice and even hallucinating about her daughter.
Juno is also protective of Sarah but she was not able to stay with Sarah and be there for her after the accident. Later you learn it was because she was having an affair with Sarah’s husband and didn’t want Sarah to see her mourn the loss of a lover while her friend mourned the loss of what she thought was a faithful husband. Juno thinks that if she can distract Sarah with an adventure that will make things ok. She claims she wanted her and Sarah to discover the system and name it after Sarah. Sarah sees through it though and thinks it’s more about Juno’s ego than her recovery. There are hints of Juno’s affair throughout the beginning of the film but eventually it is confirmed and Sarah puts all the pieces together. She also learns that Juno is responsible for Beth’s death in the cave and she is unable to forgive Juno for all her sins and leaves her to die.
Women have complex relationships that incorporate years of shared experiences. Too often in film those relationships are distilled down to simply one or two basic emotions, often jealousy or love. The Descent bypasses that roadblock and manages to explore realistic, dynamic female relationships that span many years. There is certainly jealousy, back stabbing, and cattiness, but there is also competitiveness, friendship, family, and respect. These are bold women who challenge each other to take risks, to push boundaries and themselves, they are not just going to a spa or shopping they are doing extreme activities in extreme environments. Those activities not only challenge their bodies but they challenge the bonds between each other and ultimately show everyone’s true colors. While The Descent is not a perfect film (make up your own mind about the ending) but it is refreshing to see a horror movie where women are more than just objects of sexual fantasy or screaming simpletons. These are strong, smart women in a horrific situation and they panic and kick ass in equal measure.
Horror films often force you to consider what you would do if put in the situation depicted. This film also makes you think about who you want with you in such a situation. Would you trust your best friend, your sibling, or a complete stranger to work together and survive? I hope you never find yourself trapped in a cave with monsters but if you do, remember to play nice.