Monday, May 23, 2011

Shuttle: A Ride Down The Lost Highway

It's a whole different world out there at night. I don't mean casual club-going hours, I mean like 2 and 3am, when everything shuts down. Businesses closed, parking lots empty, or maybe just a few lights on for the cleaning crew, the third shift workers, the people still at the office. An ocean of darkness dotted with islands and oases of light. Sooner or later, most of us find ourselves out there for one reason or another, maybe willingly, maybe not. Usually it's okay, but sometimes the world at night makes us nervous. It's too still, too quiet. As the author Poppy Brite once wrote: "Night time is the hardest time to be alive. 4am knows all my secrets."

Shuttle is an elegantly constructed nightmare and morality tale about what waits for us in the darkness. Seriously, this movie stayed with me for days.

It's the simplest of premises: Friends Mel and Jules are returning from vacation, and end up on the last flight in. They can't get a cab, and are trying to grab one of the last shuttle service runs for the evening so they don't end up stuck at the airport overnight. They're being followed by a couple of guys who are trying to get their attention, being attractive women and all. Maybe if this were sunny Cancun it'd be flattering, but it's late, late at night at the airport, and they just want to get home, so it's a little creepy. There are a couple of shuttle buses willing to take them, but at the last minute, one of them offers to take them for a reduced rate. Mel and Jules hop on, thinking they're avoiding a potential assault from two otherwise harmless-looking frat boys and getting a deal on transportation in the bargain. At the last minute, the two guys - Matt and Seth - jump on, and these four, plus a driver and another passenger, head into the darkness.

So things are a little tense as Matt and Seth try to hit on Mel and Jules, but what none of them seem to notice until it's too late is that the shuttle driver isn't taking them in the right direction. He's headed for the abandoned outskirts of the city.

He has no intention of taking them home.

In theory, at least, we risk this every day. Any time you get onto the last bus home, the last shuttle from the airport, take that late-night gypsy cab, you're doing so on the assumption that the driver is going to take you where you need to go. What if they don't? What if they approach your exit and keep right on going? What happens next?

In this case, what happens next is a long trip further into darkness. At first, the driver's demands seem pretty much like larceny - empty wallets of cash and credit cards, etc. But over time, as the shuttle winds further and further into deserted warehouse districts, his demands become more and more bizarre. And as in most any hostage situation, the dynamic between the hostages gets more and more complicated - some want to comply in hopes of staying alive, some want to overpower the driver. They're pitted against each other as much as they are the driver. They try to get help, but the driver does a good job of keeping a tight leash on all of the passengers. This isn't some disgruntled driver who finally snapped - this is a pro. He has done this before. He has planned for every contingency. 

Shuttle does an excellent job of using the ordinariness of the situation as something claustrophobic and demoralizing - why run for help? There's nobody for miles because they're all home warm in their beds. Call the police? The first thing he did was destroy your cell phones. Just do as he asks, no matter how strange, and maybe it'll all end up okay. This is the city, after all. Not gang territory, not the deep wilderness, just a manufacturing district. Just one of the stretches of darkness between oases of civilization and light.

It'll come as no surprise when I say that it doesn't all end up okay, but just how not-okay it's going to end up is where much of the power of this movie resides. The situation is bad, really bad, and it unfolds as slowly and inexorably as the shuttle itself moving through the streets. Every bizarre thing the driver does has a very specific and frighteningly mundane purpose, one which isn't at all obvious until the very end of the movie. A series of disconnected events and apparently irrational decisions come together, and events take a turn, then another turn, then a sudden reversal, then a negation of that reversal, and then a deeper, stranger turn into hazy nightmare territory of a type usually mined by David Lynch. As an even deeper darkness is suggested in the final act of the movie, it's almost an afterthought to the reality of the protagonists' situation, and the only thing more devastating than its conclusion is the small gesture of humanity that accompanies it, its thoughtfulness somehow making the whole even more obscene.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Descent: But Wait, It Gets Worse

One theory of the enjoyment of scary movies has it that we enjoy them because they allow us to vicariously experience events that make our everyday hassles trivial. Call it a special case of downward comparison - we come out of a scary movie thinking "sure, I had a huge fight with my spouse and work sucks and my bad ankle is acting up again, but at least I haven't had my face peeled off and sewn back onto my head upside down." That, plus the little adrenaline rush we get from being proximal to dangerous experiences without being in danger ourselves. I dunno, maybe there's something to it, but I'm not sure it ends there. Anyway, the point is that we all have things we have to deal with in our lives, and one way we deal with them is to look at how much worse someone else has it, whether it's a scary movie, a reality TV show about some "Real Housewives" somewhere, or any number of medical oddities shows.

One of the things I like about The Descent is that it goes through a few different layers of worse, and it makes the title work both literally and metaphorically as a result.

The movie begins with a group of women white-water rafting. They appear to be having a total blast, and in lesser hands, this fun would SOON TURN DEADLY, getting stranded, crazy hillfolk, Deliverance with T&A and a Final Girl emerging triumphant. That would have sucked. Instead, the women paddle up to their cars, where friends and family are waiting. It's just a fun weekend out, and sure, any minute things could turn bad, but they don't. At least not in any of the obvious ways. There are a couple of uncomfortably meaningful looks between Juno, the group's nominal leader, and Paul, who is married to Sarah, one of the other women in the group. Something is amiss, and as Sarah, Paul, and their young daughter get in the car to go home, the tension is obvious, as is the implication: Paul's been cheating on Sarah. Sharp words are exchanged, the beginnings of one of those conversations you absolutely have to have but don't want to because your daughter is sitting in the back seat. So they start to argue and they rear-end a pipe truck and BAM its cargo slams into their car, narrow metal rods spearing Paul and the daughter.

BOOM. DEAD. It's like the movie is saying "Happy now, bitches?" Things are going to get worse, yes, but not when and where and how we should expect.

Flash forward to some time later. Sarah's been struggling. She has nightmares. She takes pills. She doesn't sleep well. But she's coming along on another outing with Juno, three other friends from the rafting trip, and a new thrill-seeking friend of Juno's who the others don't know all that well. They hole up in a cabin, drink, catch up, tiptoe carefully around the dead child and unfaithful husband in the room, and Juno fills them in on the adventure. They're going caving in the Appalachians, in a documented system. Something new and exciting. This is definitely a step up from rafting for the group, and Juno, alpha female, assures all of them that she's got maps of the system and she's filed a travel plan. It's going to be a great adventure, she says. They hike up to the entrance point and rope down into the system. And here's where it gets worse again, because now you have all of these people, still thinking about the terrible tragedy that befell Sarah - a tragedy for which Juno was at least partly responsible - and now they're in a cramped space, where light is scarce, safety is even more scarce, and everyone has to rely on everyone else, and then the cave-in occurs.

BOOM. TRAPPED. Things just got worse.

Now they have nowhere to go but down. That's true both of the way out, and of their circumstances, because now we have an emotionally and psychologically volatile situation pushed forward by the need to survive. Suffice it to say, the women push further and further on, losing gear and injuring themselves along the way, wondering why all of the caving gear they find is roughly 80 years old. Wondering what the paintings on the cave walls mean. By the time certain truths come to light, it's too late. It's not really Lord of the Flies, but it has the steady drumbeat towards atavism, shot in murky shadow, flickering torchlight, sickly green nightvision, stone and mud and blood. They go ever downward, further and further downward, civilization stripped away in the cold, unsparing way that nature has of making specific things more important than manners or polite lies or really anything but the animal need to be the one left standing.

This is a claustrophobic movie in a few different ways. What's unspoken between Sarah and Juno hovers over every interaction, every conversation. It's never not there. The caves are dark, sometimes mere cracks between rocks through which the women have to push themselves. Every setback takes something away from them, every misstep costs them time and the chance of their survival. Someone has made a very, very bad mistake (not to reveal more than I already have, but it keeps…getting…worse) and now there is nowhere to go but down. The further down they go, the further they descend, the darker it gets, literally and metaphorically. Sarah has the sort of problems we watch scary movies to escape, but they are swallowed whole by the earth and our darkest impulses.