Monday, August 8, 2011
The Broken: Through The Looking Glass
One of the reasons I think scary movies are capable of being art is that at their best, they do an excellent job of committing to an aesthetic. Horror movies are capable of creating worlds like no other, from Saw's world of sumptuous velvets and rusty gears to Halloween's pools of shadow interrupted by splashes of expressionless white faces, to Night of the Living Dead's stark, grainy, pointillism. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre reminds me of nothing so much as some of Pieter Breugel's paintings, but good luck getting anyone else to listen to you once the words "chainsaw massacre" hit the air. The color palette in The Abandoned makes the world feel sick somehow, and the bright, clean lines of The Shining only make the horrors superimposed on them that much worse. Sometimes the aesthetic refers to a specific historical period, as in The House of the Devil or The Devil's Rejects, in terms of events, and circumstances as well as our understanding of film from that time period. This way you've got the world, how we understand the world, and how we understand films made about and in that world adding to the experience of the story itself. Plus, you know, blood and tits.
Even with all of that, I can't remember the last time I saw a movie that committed to its premise so fully in its aesthetic as The Broken does.
Gina McVey is a radiologist in London. Hers seems like a nice life in the city, with a boyfriend on the cusp of turning into something really serious. We see the two of them at a surprise birthday dinner for her father, with her brother and his girlfriend also in attendance. People are happy and laughing. In the middle of the merriment, a mirror on the dining room wall just…shatters. Out of nowhere, no fall, nothing thrown. It just collapses into hundreds of shards.
How often do we think about mirrors, really? We need them to help us groom ourselves, to make us into the people we present to the world. They are flat, cool, silvery pieces of glass, and we take for granted that we are facing ourselves in them.
The next day, Gina McVey, while standing on the streets of London, watches herself drive by in her car. Not someone who looks like her - her. Not a car like hers - her car, down to the license plate.
How often do we think about mirrors, really?
The Broken is as simple, clean, and coolly presented a horror film as you could ask for. London is laid out in shades of blue and gray, as if glimpsed by reflection in still water. Dialogue is quiet and spare, space and silence fills most of the movie, and the pace is deliberate. The events play out slowly, measured, like the steady drip of water, music swelling to a sharp, piercing edge at new revelations. Small things are as important as larger things, not all of them telegraphed. There are mirrors, x-rays, cameras. Images and reflections, seeing and being seen keeps everything stretched tight with the paranoia you'd associate with Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Stepford Wives. It's not so much the terror of people not being who they appear to be as being nothing but their appearance - there's something empty and hungry about that, something horrible.
This is the sort of movie that demands patience and careful attention to get the most out of it. The pace means dread rising to terror rather than sharp scares (at least until things start to escalate), and if you don't know exactly what it is you're seeing and why it's important, it's not going to have the impact it should. Small things go wrong, but have much larger implications. You need to do the math to be rewarded, which is totally fine by me. This is the stuff of my nightmares, the innocuous event carrying horrible meaning. My one objection then is that the story attempts one last twist at the end, and it feels unearned because it relies on an experience of previous events that hasn't been drawn clearly enough for us to understand it. It makes the story a little too complicated (when it hasn't been up to this point) and robs the conclusion of some of its power. That said, the trip there is an exercise in premise embodied - this movie is composed of mirror glass. It's cool, slick, precise, and offers up nothing but what we see, silently and without judgment. But when everything comes apart - when the mirror breaks, it breaks hard and sharp, adding red to the palette in drips and pools.
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Netflix