Xavier Gens is a mess of a film maker. His most well-known film is the interesting but ultimately unfulfilling video game adaptation, Hitman, and his most infamous film is the bizarre and nightmarish Frontier(s), a twisted disaster of violence and torture and discombobulated social commentary. His newest film, The Divide, is thematically more like Frontiers, sharing some common nihilistic concepts, but with a radically different setting and story. It’s also, much like Gens himself, a disconcerting and muddled movie (though not without merit).
The story of The Divide is simple enough. Without warning or explanation, nuclear bombs hit New York City, and a group of apartment building-dwellers flee into their basement, where they find themselves trapped with no idea what’s happening outside the walls and above ground. Fortunately for them, the building’s maintenance super Mickey (Michael Biehn) is something of a survivalist nut, so the basement is well stocked with canned beans and water, enabling them to subsist as they try to figure out what to do next. There are several players, though the film focuses most on the pregnant Eva (Lauren German), who’s married to Sam (Iván González), an intellectually sharp milquetoast who immediately feels threatened by the collection of more masculine-seeming denizens, including Delvin (Courtney B. Vance), Mickey, the brothers Josh (Milo Ventimiglia) and Adrien (Ashton Holmes), and their wannabe punk-emo buddy Bobby (Michael Eklund). Rounding things out are Rosanna Arquette as Marilyn, the fragile mother, and a couple of others who frankly don’t really matter.
The gist of the story is, of course, how they’ll handle this frightening situation, and for the first half-hour or so, The Divide is an engaging, occasionally terrifying film that captures the claustrophobia and fears of this unlikely band of basement dwellers. Mickey quickly assumes the position of master of the domain, only to be challenged by Delvin, and later Bobby and Josh, while the kindhearted Adrien assumes the position of nervous observer. The tension ratchets up slowly but effectively, particularly when they learn that there are other survivors out there — ominous, faceless soldiers in sleek white biohazard suits armed with wicked looking guns. After a clash with the soldiers that leaves two soldiers dead and the door welded shut, things start to take a turn for the worse, as the realization that they are now literally trapped begins to sink in.
That’s also the point where the film starts to go off the rails. The group slowly begins to get sick from gradual radiation poisoning, although there’s no indication as to how much time has passed — days, weeks, or months, it remains unknown for the duration of the film. It’s a minor nitpick, but there are several more that add up — the presence of the soldiers is literally never revisited, nor is their sinister purpose or the odd, X-Files-esque structures that they’ve built or the bizarre experiments they conduct. There’s one scene, and then bam! They never appear again. It’s a strangely off-putting loose end. Similarly, people begin to visibly suffer from the radiation poisoning, but no one ever seems to need to shave or get a haircut. Again, minor quibbles and inconsistencies that slowly add up.
The sticking point for most viewers (including Dustin and Seth, who hated the movie), is the seemingly abrupt devolution of the group. As the sickness and cramped quarters and battles for dominance get more intense, the group fractures into smaller factions, each going their own special kind of crazy. It’s understood, if not expected, that a certain amount of disassociation would occur and people would begin to lose it, but the changes that take place are so radical, and awful, that it begins to lose any sense of realism. The Divide quickly descends into a lurid psychodrama of violence, hatred, visciousness and venality, and becomes a thoroughly unpleasant viewing experience. Given the gender disparity in the group’s makeup, it’s unsurprising that sexual politics come into play, but it’s taken to the nth degree, and (spoiler warning, I suppose) results in some truly horrid rape scenes (then again, is there any other kind?), both implied and explicit.
It’s this unrelentingly horrific examination of human nature that works against the film’s favor. I expected to enter some dark territory, as is Gens’ forte, but the characters’ deconstruction is so total and unflinchingly horrid that it defies logic and begins to simply be horror for the sake of horror, rather than for the sake of storytelling. Gens loves to make his audiences squirm, which I respect to a point, but he does it to excess and at the sacrifice of a cogent narrative, which ultimately makes the film seem pointless. The focus of what began as a pretty engaging story is totally lost in favor of simply making you want to walk out (which, I confess, I was tempted to do at times).
It’s a shame, really, because there’s some good stuff floating amidst the detritus of The Divide. Lauren German gives a strong performance as Eva, rarely resorting to cliched, shrill woman stereotypes. Courtney B. Vance is excellent, but underused. On the other hand, Michael Biehn, an actor who I’ve always loved (well … OK — I love Hicks, Johnny Ringo and Kyle Reese), is absolutely terrible, giving a contrived, overwrought slice of overacting. Similarly, Ventimiglia is dumb and oafish and poorly rendered, and his performance is easily the weakest of the major players.
Gens’ camera work is solid, though. He makes effective use of the tight spaces and narrow corridors, and of the limited, sparse lighting to effectively create an intense atmosphere. Similarly, the opening five minutes of the film are nothing short of astounding — a havoc-filled, panic-inducing frightfest as the bombs go off and the building begins to collapse, creating a terrifyingly realistic human stampede as people desperately search for safety. And oddly, the closing few minutes are surprisingly beautiful and intricately depicted.
But the film collapses quickly under its own oppressively gruesome weight. I didn’t hate it, but there wasn’t enough of it that I found likable for it to be a worthwhile experience. While I don’t mind being made to squirm and swallow my gorge periodically in movies, it has to give the film some sense of purpose or dramatic weight, and in The Divide that purpose is simply never present. Instead, you’ve got a couple of decent performances and some strong camera work bookended by two astonishingly impressive scenes. It’s a shame that everything in the middle is such a goddamn mess.
The Divide premiered at the 2011 SXSW Film Festival.