SXSW 2011: THE DIVIDE Review

Peter Martin, Managing Editor
Warning: radiation poisoning will make you stupid, obnoxious, and repellent. If you're a typical man, that is.

The Divide, directed by Xavier Gens, begins in sensational fashion with bombs raining down on a major US city. The view is from within a high-rise apartment building as terrified residents tear down the stairs; a few of them barrel through a closing door and into apparent safety as explosions rock the city.

The survivors, eight adults and child, huddle in the basement, which is the domain of building superintendent Mickey (Michael Biehn). He's a tough-talking, foul-mouthed racist and bigot, and probably a misogynist too. Assuming command of the situation, he orders that the only entrance to the basement be kept locked until he deems it safe outside. He's decided that the bombs were a nuclear attack by the Arabs and warns the group of the dire consequences of radiation poisoning.

His authoritarian leadership does not sit well with anyone, most especially volatile half brothers Josh (Milo Ventimiglia) and Adrien (Ashton Holmes) and their running buddy Bobby (Michael Eklund). They try storming out, leading to an angry confrontation and open rebellion, but when men in hazard suits armed with automatic weapons cut their way into the bunker,  the survivors form a wary alliance to overcome the invaders.

Trapped inside the dirty, dingy, dark bunker for an indefinite period of time, and starting to show early signs of radiation sickness, the survivors begin to break down physically, emotionally, and mentally. Perhaps they're the last survivors on Earth; there's no way to know unless they go outside, which means certain death. As water and food supplies dwindle, how long can they survive underground?

Written by Karl Mueller and Eron Sheean, The Divide presents the bleakest, most brutal picture imaginable of a post-apocalyptic world. The great Laurent Barès, who photographed Gens' previous features Frontier(s) and Hitman, as well as À l'intérieur and La Horde, is a master of shadow and light. Despite the claustrophobic setting of The Divide, the narrative feels fluid and the framing never becomes repetitive. Some of the most effective imagery appears late in the film and looks very stylish indeed.

Yet its all in service of characters who, generally speaking, start off bad and simply get worse, descending into outright Comic Book Evil or its (arguably) lesser cousins, Passivity and Complicity.

Without spoiling anything, consider an early scene after the survivors come to the full realization that they're stuck in a bunker with strangers they don't know, like, or trust. It's the lead-up to the attempted break-out, and it sets the tone for what's to follow. The tone is, very explicitly, strident and sickening.

Mickey is a roaring cauldron of anger. Josh, Adrien and Bobby are selfish brutes who will do what they want when they want, no matter who else might get injured or killed. Delvin (Courtney B. Vance) has a facade of humanity, but when push comes to shove, he's going to put himself ahead of everyone else. Marilyn (Rosanna Arquette) is a shrieking, hysterical, unbalanced mother with a very scared young daughter (Abbey Thickson). Sam (Ivan Gonzalez) is a fearful, insecure, passive man.

Only Eva (Lauren German), Sam's sensible girlfriend, proves to be a steady voice of reason, and she has issues too.

On the face of it then, The Divide shoves viewers into a bunker with exceedingly unpleasant company for 110 minutes. The premise is that (nearly) all men will devolve into animalistic creatures, revealing and relying upon their basest instincts for survival. That's an ugly and pessimistic approach, but it's certainly an artistically valid choice.

If the film had probed the characters to better effect, or if Gens had been able to modulate the performances to a greater degree, maybe the result would have been devastating and powerful.

The idea that a lone woman might have to fight off a group of men, for example, whose allegiance is only to their darker nature, is terrifying, especially since they're all trapped in a confined space. By the time the issue arises, however, it's much less about men vs. women than it is a simplistic battle of strength vs. weakness. And the men have been spouting too many nasty, clever, macho lines of dialogue to think of them as credible villains.  

As it is, the aforementioned strident and sickening tone is set too high too soon. It's like a high-pitched sound that's painful. Sure it's effective device -- it causes pain. But the characters are so incredibly mean and nasty to one another from an early point that their actions thereafter have only minimal effect. We become inured to the brutality.

We can see them do great injury to one another and we've already checked out, not caring what happens to them, because they're not individuals, they're character types. We can weep for humanity, but not this bunch.


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