(The Divide, Xavier Gens, Canada/Germany/US, 2011, 110 mins)
Amongst some of the questionable scheduling decisions at FrightFest 2011 was the decision to bury Xavier Gens’ air tight thriller in a graveyard slot on a Sunday morning. Perhaps the curators worried that the lack of gore, or the complicated group dynamics and exploration of humanity on the brink, would alienate the sadists that had bought their festival passes in the hope of being soiled with brain matter and bone fragments. Perhaps the productions that sent cast and crew to the festival got preferential scheduling.
Whatever the rationale, a film crime was committed, because The Divide, trapping the audience in the fortified basement of a New York apartment building with the human remnants of a nuclear attack, was amongst the best of the procured titles. Sure, there’s the 9/11 angle, the cliché of the moment and the essential springboard for any modern Manhattan movie apocalypse; maybe soon it’ll make the elephant in the room redundant; but here it provides some welcome shading to the character of Michael Biehn’s super, foregrounding his siege mentality.
As a former FDNY first responder, now a gruff, cigar chewing hermit, he knows a little something about teetering on the brink. He remains a shadowy figure throughout the group’s captivity, motives opaque, in contrast to the disintegration and moral capitulation of those around him. Never entirely a likable character, his presence signals the filmmakers’ intent in making the audience work to apportion their sympathies. There’s plenty of septic green and bilious brown in this basement, but fortunately no black and white.
Gens’ grip on the changing moral and sexual dynamics within the group is strong and he engineers plenty of tension, introducing complications that act as tests of character; radiation sickness, a lost child, the necessary destruction of corpses; sexual frustration and the rape threat to the two women. It could have didactic and predictable, a finger wagging exercise, but the cast are too good and the choices too appalling for simplistic moralising to get a foothold.
Any close quarter drama has to work hard to sustain momentum so it’s fortunate that Gens is wise to the challenge. There’s no fat on the narrative, no wasted scenes or dragging philosophical chit chat. Instead The Divide employs a good few psychical close ups, bearing down on each person’s makeup in extremis. Each character succumbs to cabin fever; that claustrophobia might even be induced by our imposing glare. We get close enough to smell the decay and taste the stale air.
We see an ordinary group of men and women, the kind we pass every day on the street, transformed into murderers, rapists and torturers. It’s always a pleasure to see civilisation crumble of course; experience it safely; apocalyptic drama gives proxy life to incriminating drives. It slams the lid on that murder fantasy for another week. Provided you remember that and don’t go wading through the tangential quagmire that is social and political relevance, for there is none, then you’ll enjoy this fictive study in anthropology more than most.