Directed by: Xavier Gens
Second to the “Home invasion” genre, the genre’ that freaks me out the most is the post apocalypse ones. Not the fantastic one’s where we have rebuilt civilization in whatever way we can, but the ones dealing with the hours, days, and weeks after the balloon pops. I blame this all on being part of Generation X, growing up fearing the nuclear bomb, and all those British high on realism survival horrors that blitzed onto our TV screens late eighties, early nineties.
Sometime back then (or even further if you really look for it) there’s a vital change in movies of what we refer to as “modern age”. They frequently have a theme proving that it makes no matter what the external threat may be, humans will always fight amongst each other. We will not rally up together to communally fight one common foe, but we will single out individuals within the group and attack them first. Almost like when animals sense the weakness within their pack. But the twist in genre films being that the internal tormentor will be the primary antagonist for the protagonist, and life will not go on – or adapt to new conditions – before this antagonist is taken care of.
Nine people hide away in an underground bunker/safe room in the bottom of their New York building as nukes take out their city. Moment’s later fractions start to form in the small group. Initially it’ seems to be them all against Janitor Mickey, who’ already lives in the shelter below to start with. Then a secondary threat is posed when men in biohazard suits break into the shelter – which the nine at first think is a rescue team – only to kidnap the youngest female child of the group. From here on the group shatter as they realize they are powerless in the situation. With this insight new forces start to surface within the group, and the small community becomes a merciless dictatorship where one man rules them all.
Xavier Gens really has a knack for stabbing knives into his audience and then slowly twisting them around forming a gaping hole. The Divide, just like his earlier Frontière(s) 2007 is a harsh, haunting chamber piece with a dark insight into the human mind. Several sudden plot twists bring edge to the piece, and every time one thinks the characters will react in one specific way, they go the other. One could definitely call the movie a study of human decay, and how a group, no matter how small it may be, will soon be confronted by choices that will polarize them.
The main narrative is of course survival, in small and larger arcs, the main large arc being staying in the bunker until it’s safe to venture outside, the macro perspective to survival. What’s alarming with the piece is how they react when they realize what is going on outside their shelter, or at least what they think is happening. The group crumbles and plummets into an even deeper darkness as they start to lash out at each other. Restrained food and water start taking its toll and they fall even deeper into desperation and frustration. Here some of the finer subplots come into play, the one concerning Eva [Lauren German] and her boyfriend Sam [Ivan Gonzalez], the triangular tension between bothers Adrien [Ashton Holmes], Josh [Milo Ventimiglia] and his best (perhaps even boyfriend) Bobby [Michael Eklund], the personal grudge between Devlin [Courtney B. Vance] and Mickey the Janitor [Michael Biehn] etc. It al builds neatly off smaller subplots to intertwine with each other to become subplots of their own which later evolve into main narrative.
Just like in zombie drama/horror’s paranoia is a big part of The Divide. The fractions within the constellations don’t dare trust each other, and perhaps they shouldn’t either. I love what Gens has done with the Mickey character, and put moral doubt in an otherwise commonly sacred character, the 9-11 fire fighter. (or perhaps I should say Karl Mueller and Eron Sheefan, as they wrote the story). Its’s also the character who has the most dimension, as we never really know where we have him. One minute he’s lying, or is he, then he’s telling the truth or is he? He’s a scarred and complex character, who puts many of the others to shame.
German’s Eva more or less comes off as a typical passive female lead – No, she’s no Milla Jovovich or Sigourney Weaver, kicking ass from square one – but she does have a great character arch as she grows with the tension and frustration slowly cranked up throughout the movie. Finally she has no other option but to react, and cut her ties with everything. And talking of past, I love when small hints are given to backstory, without becoming ridiculously daft. At one moment Sam screams “You where nothing, a junkie walking the streets before you met me!” Again these small sub-plots such as the one between Eva and Sam is fascinating and definitely what bring the characters to life. Eva and Sam’s relationship is so over, but they still haven’t dared let go… which is metaphorical for the journey that Eva makes in the movie. She doesn’t really dare, she’s passive until she’s forced beyond the norm.
Cast wise it varies, some are really impressive, especially Milo Ventimiglia and Michael Bien who I feel are completely cast contrary to what one would have expected from them. Venitmiglia gives a great performance as a complete psychopathic guy who stumbles over too much power to fast. An interesting note on the two leading men, where Biehn at first comes off as the antagonist of the piece, values shift through actions and deeds. Despite what we may think of Mickey, it s nothing compared to what Bobby and Joey do to him which shifts the balance of focus. From that moment on we empathise more with him and the two men take over the role of antagonists.
German and Arquette as the only female cast members do what they can, but Arquette does all the real work, she has a traumatizing road ahead of her and loosing her only solid rock – “the only good in me” – she plummets down into chaos and depravation at the hands of Joey and Bobby. Almost like a bully mentality, as long as she sticks with them and let’s them have their way, she’s not at the boot of the torment. Other’s are completely over the top, and perhaps should have toned it down a bit. Then again, who knows how the hell we’d react when faced with death by starvation and radiation poisoning whilst trapped in a fallout shelter with a load of people I hated…
The ending is dark and nihilistic, but at the same time, immersed with the same poetic beauty that I find in other Gens films, and despite the violent climax offers a suggestion of hope and a future after the terrifying ordeal. I also find it kind of interesting that both Frontier(s) and The Divide both feature somewhat passive female characters that transform completely only when then have been pushed to far. This generates a determined fighting machine that will let nothing or anyone stand in their route to survival.
The Divide is an intense ride, a powerful journey of human decay, dark depravity, as it’s characters regress to primal beings, and at the same time an intense ride as the will to endure is tested in extreme ways. The Divide provoked me in several ways, and played with some of my basic fears and definitely made me think about those “What if” scenarios. That’s a good reason to watch if there where any.