Directed by Xavier Gens
At Fantasia’s Canadian premiere of Gens’ The Divide, this post-apocalyptic character study was cheerfully introduced by Michael Biehn as “a dark motherfucker”. Documenting the psychological decay of people stranded in a basement apartment weathering out a nuclear holocaust, the horror of the film veers from survival to a Lord of the Flies exploration of man’s capacity for evil, which amounts to post-apocalyptic stress unleashing the demented testosterone-crazed frat boy longing to rape, maim and cross-dress in every man. Gens wisely realizes that an obliterated landscape singed to dust, pus-oozing victims, monster mutants and Tina Turner as an evil overlord flouncing around the Thunderdome could never compete with the horror of being trapped in a bunker turned sorority house nonstop hazing ritual with no way out.
The Divide was apparently funded by an intern’s parents for $2.5 million, allowing director Xavier Gens total freedom to orchestrate his vision. In a Q&A with Gens and actors Michael Biehn and Michael Eklund after the screening, they described undergoing a grueling method acting process to prepare for their roles. The actors were allowed only one piece of fried chicken per day to cultivate an appropriately ravaged look and shared a hotel room in Winnipeg, where The Divide was shot. While rivalries and power struggles emerged in the film (shot chronologically), real lines and social groups developed between the actors, who feuded while living in such close proximity and took their characters home with them when they left the set. Gens also stated that he gave the actors freedom to improvise many of their scenes, creating an environment where they tried to one up each other to gain increasing screen time.
During The Divide’s opening scene, visions of a nuclear apocalypse are reflected in a young woman’s eyes as she watches New York City bombed through her window. The terrified residents of an apartment complex rush to the basement, where they take shelter in superintendent Mickey’s (Michael Biehn) bunker. Mickey is a reluctant host, the kind of guy who stockpiles rifles and cans of beans in his basement while mumbling about the Arabs. He keeps a private room that the other survivors are forbidden from entering and insists the basement door be kept shut at all times, lecturing his guests on the effects of radiation. Tension mounts as the survivors panic and strain against Mickey’s authoritarianism.
There’s Eva (Lauren German), a pretty and assertive young woman, and her weak, passive/aggressive boyfriend, Sam (Ivan Gonzalez,) an easy prey for the bullies in the group; middle-aged and emotionally unstable mom Marilyn (Rosanna Arquette) and her frightened young daughter (Abbey Thickson); Delvin (Courtney B. Vance), the black guy who dies early; brothers Josh (Milo Ventimiglia) and Adrien (Ashton Holmes); and tough guy asshole Bobby (Michael Eklund). Eva emerges as the voice of reason and most relatable character as she struggles with her urge to survive while remaining decent.
“Your face will melt off and your hair will fall out”, Mickey tells the little girl at one point when she asks what will happen to them if they go outside. Later, after Mickey slaps a hysterical Sam to keep him in line, he darkly reassures the child that he won’t hurt her, “Uncle Mickey only slaps little girls.”
The Divide cleverly discards numerous genre tropes such as the little kid used to generate audience sympathy. By refusing to spare her the reality of their situation, Mickey illustrates to the audience and his fellow survivors that there is no room in their world for sheltering innocence. We witness every character who seeks love and comfort punished or weakened, while others replace affection with violence and subjugation. The result is relentlessly nihilist and difficult to watch.
After the stage for conflict is set, men in Hazmat suits mistaken for rescuers burst into the basement and terrorize the group, introducing a new threat. A seemingly heroic Josh leaves to investigate the newcomers and discovers a mysterious science lab where they’re conducting horrific scientific experiments. After a narrow escape, the survivors are sealed into their lair by the malevolent strangers, increasing their sense of claustrophobia and despair. An altercation with Mickey, who’s been keeping a secret from the gang, leads to an overthrow of the social order. Madness, rape, torture, and murder ensue as the survivors suffer the effects of radiation, food deprivation, and mental deterioration.
The improvisational approach to acting and plot proves to be both a strength and weakness to the movie. There are scenes where all the characters argue and talk over each other, creating a rare demented energy and realism which rarely occurs within movies with more tightly plotted scripts. However, there are some silly moments and missteps where I felt like I was watching an actor horsing around rather than a tightly crafted character. One unhinged character slips into a dress and starts applying makeup to signal his final descent into madness, for example. The old chestnut where a violent macho dick turns out to be secretly homo or a cross-dresser (cuz all gay men love wearing dresses!) has become clichéd and doesn’t really do any favors to gay people when homosexuality is used as a device for emasculating characters or rendering assholes absurd.
At its best, however, The Divide poses unsettling questions using a horrifying scenario, a young woman trapped in an oppressively small space, terrorized by violent predators, and unflinchingly asks what the average person would be willing to sacrifice for survival and how far we can strain our humanity before it breaks.
4 out of 5