Monday, November 7, 2011

We Agree: The Divide

(read David's take)

2011, Xavier Gens -- cinema

I cannot honestly recall the last time I entered a movie with no preconceptions about it at all. I have usually seen a trailer, a review, a poster, a commercial or heard someone talking about a film before I've managed to see it. More often than not, I anticipate seeing a film (or, in some cases, dread it). So it's kind of refreshing to come into a movie I know nothing about, have no familiarity with and get to watch a film unfold with no expectations.

The Divide could have been that movie, if not for the fact that I watched it at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival where the film was preceded by a quick interview session with cast members and the director of the film. It was only about four or five minutes of somewhat labored questions and answers (before a veritable packed house at the Toronto Underground no less) but it was enough to thrust me into viewing the immediate film with what was spoiled for me before hand (and also putting upon it expectations after revealing it set off a bidding war at SXSW from distributors).... but close enough you know.

The Divide, as David described in his review, opens with a bang -- chaos -- and the gathering of our cast in a bunker beneath an apartment building. David described it beautifully about watching a group of people who don't like each other much to start with continue even more darkly down that path. It's an ugly, brutal, and punishing movie, but it's also far better than it had any right to be.

Director Xavier Gens lenses his film beautifully, making excellent use of his confined quarters and equally excellent use of his cast. It's not a powerhouse group, and there's no clear star (though Lauren German as Eva is clearly the focal point, but she's a relatively pacifist character, reacting more than acting), instead rounded out with a motley crew consisting of 80's SF stalwart Michael Behn, Heroes star Milo Ventimiglia, Law & Order: Criminal Intent's Courtney B. Vance, and Rosanna Arquette as the familiar faces, while Michael Eklund provides the CanCon (the film was shot in Winnipeg) and Iván González some european flavour.

After the filming, the director and cast noted that even though the film was scripted, they largely improvised around that framework. Gens gave the actors the freedom to develop their characters withing the context of the story, and it leads to some surprising, and for the most part, damn strong work (Behn is at times the weak link, getting laughs with a hammy performance where I don't think they were actually intended). Gens did create an actor's film and Eklund is the easy standout, though González puts in a brilliant turn as the percolating-yet-powerless lesser half to Eva). Ventimiglia does get downright despicable and commits to the character, showing his teeth early on, then provided a moment of redemption (in an excellent sequence where he leaves the confines of the bunker into a maze of plastic tunnels erected, I guess, by the government for... some purpose), but ultimately succumbs to his darker instincts.

There's a lot to admire about this film. Chief among them are the little details Gens pays attention to, such as the effects of radiation poisoning on the characters over the few weeks they're trapped, and the general degradation of the living conditions. As well, Gens' sense of light and shadow, the color pallet used throughout, the practical special effects all lend a certain natural beauty to the grim setting. It's an incredibly good looking film.

Alas, it's also an utterly predictable film. The rhythms of the character development have all been seen before in apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic films time and time again. From 28 Days Later, to the novel Blindness (never saw the movie), to the Walking Dead comics (I don't watch the show), they all exemplify the decline of civility, of kindness and compassion for the primal urge to not just survive but conquer. When the women get raped and people are killed over a can of peaches, it's bleak, sure, but it's also what's expected, as if it's the only option. Yes, the film is hard to watch because of where its characters go, but it's also hard to watch because we've seen characters go there so many times before, and it's not all that surprising.

The decision to make Eve the audience surrogate, the observer, the watcher, was an interesting one, as it thrusts upon the viewer the role of sympathizer for her. But Eve, though never physically confrontational and often conciliatory, is also a terrible manipulator, which I guess is reflected both in her relationship with the other characters and with the audience. She's certainly not innocent (I think, really, González's Sam is about as close to remaining innocent as they come by the film's end).

So, as David put it, Gans did take a novel approach to the apocalyptic story, but there's nothing new as a result. It's not a bad film (perhaps overlong and tedious at times, but generally quite watchable) but given the genre potential it just doesn't contribute enough to outright recommend it.

*note, "The Fallout" was the film's original title.