LIFF 2011: THE DIVIDE review

Xavier Gens' superb The Divide basically posits that should the bombs drop and the world get blown to radioactive splinters, the scariest thing that could happen wouldn't be finding out you were screwed. It'd be finding out that given the opportunity, you'd trample over anyone to get whatever you needed to survive, once things had become life or death. It's a solid idea, far bleaker than the relatively optimistic outlook of The Book of Eli (people just need a moral compass, right?) or the quiet apocalypse of Gareth Edwards' Monsters (hey, life goes on). And despite a slow first act that threatens to derail the whole thing into ghoulish off-Broadway theatre, this bitter, misanthropic streak builds into a storming crescendo.

Part gore, part lunacy, part hair-trigger character drama, the final act is a thing of freakish, twisted beauty, with the ending in particular so damn near perfect it deserves a fist pumping the air in salute. The film itself is some way short of a masterpiece - the script remains weak throughout, and none of the cast are up to putting enough life into it to gloss over the glaringly obvious dialogue or the crude attempts at explicit character development. But the brilliant, slow-burning pace and the unspoken growth (or regression) the characters undergo win out in the end. Crude as it is The Divide is still far and away one of the highlights of 2011.

The opening is a frantic few minutes of shock and awe as the holocaust kicks off - we're never told who pushed the button or why, we just see people running for their lives. As a panicked crowd floods down the staircase in a nameless apartment building, a small handful manage to squeeze into the basement and slam the door on the rest, cowering down there until the ground's stopped shaking and the screams have died away. At first they decide they just have to survive until the good guys dig them out of the rubble, but it slowly becomes clear no-one knows precisely what's going on above ground, and they might be trapped there for a very long time.

The building's janitor, Mickey (Michael Biehn) appoints himself the leader - a bigoted survivalist, he's had the basement stocked with supplies for ages, waiting for this to happen and considers the rest of the survivors all there on sufferance. They're an average lot; a young couple, Eva (Lauren German) and Josh (Heroes' Milo Ventimiglia, hiding behind a terrible accent); two brothers, Marilyn (Rosanna Arquette) a mother with her child, and so on, with none of them in the mood to make a play to end up top dog. But when it seems Mickey isn't telling them everything he knows about their situation, the group slowly starts to fracture and when they discover they might be in as much danger in the safe house as out of it, those fault lines start to yawn wide open.

First impressions are good, but not great. Once the initial pyrotechnics are out of the way and people start talking, the script doesn't impress - there's a worrying amount of awkwardly camouflaged exposition, with people bluntly speaking their mind in ways that have nothing to do with reacting to stress and everything to do with clumsy foreshadowing. The story centres on Eva, and though German's a competent actress she doesn't appear to have too much presence even before you take into account she's playing a character who shies away from confrontation. Even the more experienced members of the cast are stuck with relatively obvious types.

But this is the point Gans abruptly introduces the idea rescue's a long way off - that these people aren't getting out, period, unless something drastic happens. A new external threat (other than the radiation and the general chaos) has them seemingly sealed in, and things slowly start to get a lot more interesting. While the script itself doesn't greatly improve, the cast deal with internalising stress and the damage to their psyches a lot better once things go Lord of the Flies. Eva discovers a far darker, tougher inner strength than she expected to find under pressure from the others' abuses, and this should end up unintentionally comical, yet somehow it's anything but.

All this is still conveyed in the language of the comic book: you couldn't call it realistic as such. But even the most annoying characters get their moment where they kick the dramatics up a notch, yet it always feels earned, natural, never contrived. The outward signs of people's madness also work startlingly well. Once things get even darker, and the gore starts in earnest, it's actually shocking to discover precisely how far these people are willing to go to survive, whether they're knuckling under or ready to kill to stay alive. It's rare an ending feels so right - the climax is by no means happy, but when you realise yes, things are going to play out how you guessed they would the rush is palpable.

The Divide is still a genre flick - the gore, the insanity and the depths the characters sink to may be dramatic, but they're clearly there to get a rise out of the audience as well. At the same time, it's so intent on trying to be more than a genre flick the script gets far too caught up with the idea of constantly reminding you it's supposed to be saying something. But like the characters, there's steel down there, and in the end the cast do rise to the challenge of showing exactly where that's going to take the story, gore, insanity and all. Dark, unsettling and with a roof-raising climax, Xavier Gans' peculiar take on the apocalypse is far and away one of the highlights of 2011, and for all its flaws still comes hugely recommended.

(The Divide was screened as part of the 25th Leeds International Film Festival, which ran from 3rd-20th November 2011.)
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