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.