Friday, July 18, 2014

The Divide: I Don’t Know What We’re Yelling About

I don’t see the point of film criticism (if I can be so presumptuous as to call what I do criticism) as being to say “that was good” or “that sucked.” It’s dull and reductive and heaven knows there’s enough of that kind surrounding horror movies. I mean, for fuck’s sake, when people write straight-faced reviews that base their opinion of a film on the quality of the “kills” or the gore or the amount of nudity, it’s, well, depressing. But there certainly is an evaluative component to it, a tendency to a broader valenced judgment. I like some movies and dislike others, I’m not going to pretend otherwise, and I usually come away from a film with a sense of “I like it” or “I don’t like it” predicated on how well it succeeds at some things or fails at others. Sometimes I’ll be indifferent, but not often. I can count the number of movies I’ve watched and thought “I have nothing to say about this” since I started doing this thing on one hand.

But it’s rare that I’ve watched a movie that I generally disliked, but which managed to stick with me after I watched it. So, I have a lot of things I don’t like about The Divide, and I cannot say in all honesty that it’s all that good, but there are some things it did which have haunted me, so I can’t just dismiss it out of hand. I’m sort of wrestling with it.

We open close on a woman’s eyes, in which an inferno is reflected. A single tear rolls down her cheek, and the shot reverses to show a city ending in nuclear fire. The apocalypse has come, and the residents of a single apartment building are trying to flee the destruction. They head for the basement, where eight manage to find shelter along with the building’s cantankerous superintendent.

It becomes pretty clear pretty quickly that the super doesn’t really want them down there. He’d been preparing the basement for just such an eventuality - an ad hoc survival shelter to wait out a nuclear strike. And now he has eight uninvited guests. They’re a collection of types - a motley crew in the studied way afforded by most disaster movies. You’ve got Eva, who has “Final Girl” written all over her, her boyfriend Sam and their neighbor Adrien, who are cut cleanly from the cloth of “well-meaning, but ineffectual”, Marilyn, who is a Mom, and her daughter Wendi, who is a Little Kid. There’s Delvin, who is the stern, level-headed authority figure, and Josh and Bobby, who are pretty much unreconstructed scumbags from the moment they’re on screen. And then there’s the super, Mickey, who is irascible and paranoid and kind of xenophobic. 

And this is the first problem with the movie - with the exception of Mickey, who is probably the most caricatured to start but is the only one with anything resembling any sort of personal history throughout - every one of these people is exactly what they appear to be, and they don’t so much change as disintegrate over the course of the film. They’re the sum of their traits and nothing more. The entire film is essentially one long, slow descent away from humanity, so we’re sort of handed a bunch of archetypes only to watch them become even less than what they were to start.

It’s a long, slow, descent, and a loud one, too. It starts off at a pitch of shrill panic and then sort of stays there. Most of the film basically has two volume settings, loud and louder. Not all of it, to be fair, but the quiet moments don't seem to be placed with regard to anything like mood or pace or rhythm. Sometimes it's quiet and...most of the time it isn't. Things happen, except when they don’t. Characters rarely communicate in anything other than shouting and cursing and screaming, and it’s grating. If you’re doing to try and tell the story of a group of people trapped together and descending into madness, you need some sort of trajectory, and if characterization isn’t going to provide it, then the mood should. It’s hard to ramp up tension when everything’s already dialed in tight. Crescendos can’t start at maximum volume.

Its tone-deafness is matched by a lack of narrative direction. It's not so much the story of society breaking down as it is the story of a bunch of hastily-assembled pieces of society refusing to cohere, the same way you can't just construct a vase by stacking shards of pottery on top of each other. These are not people who get along to begin with, so we aren't really seeing anything valuable lost, and there's nothing surprising or revealing about the events as they transpire. The people you think are going to be assholes turn out to be assholes, the people you think are going to be weak turn out to be weak. The only question is how long does it take them to lose their humanity (not long at all) and how far do they fall (pretty fucking far). There's no tension to speak of, it's just two hours of wallowing in misery and then it ends on the only possible note it can, and guess what, it's not a positive one. That said, in the final act, as everything falls apart, it goes to some really interesting places to depict the inhabitants’ slide into depravity. The grimy industrial setting does some of the heavy lifting here, the makeshift nature of their resources does too, as does the flickering, yellowed lighting, and the rest falls to some unconventional, almost absurd imagery that give the last half-hour or so a fevered, claustrophobic feeling that really communicates a descent into madness. Bad shit comes bubbling up out of people’s brains as they become less and less human, and it makes you feel queasy and uncomfortable. I’ve still got images from the end of the movie stuck in my head almost a week later, and that doesn’t happen very often. To its credit, it makes the utterly bleak ending - a panorama of a world completely ruined - almost refreshing. The air is toxic with radioactive dust, and it’s still fresher than what you’ve been breathing for the majority of the movie. It’s not a small accomplishment.

In addition, the film does tease certain things beyond the obvious - what's happening on the outside suggests a larger mystery that's never really explored, and the early signs of radiation sickness among the characters suggest an even more miserable end than what we got somehow, but it’s a problem that these things are never really foregrounded. No, all of the damage here is due to human venality, weakness, and greed. At its most surreally grotesque, it does afford an experience that can come close to being compelling, but stacked against the film’s other shortcomings they end up being just flashes, fleeting moments buried in the cinematic equivalent of a 16-year-old shouting "EVERYTHING SUCKS!" for two hours straight.

Unavailable from Netflix Instant (Available on DVD)

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