DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: The Divide - Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2011

Wednesday 26 October 2011

The Divide - Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2011

The Divide (2011) dir. Xavier Gens
Starring: Michael Biehn, Laura German, Milo Ventimiglia, Michael Eklund, Rosanna Arquette


By Greg Klymkiw

We've seen it before, but we all know it's the ride that counts, and if nasty, darkly humorous, character-driven dystopian science fiction is what you're into, The Divide is one chilling, hair-raising, white-knuckle roller coaster charging into the horrors of a crazed post-apocalyptic Hell. In fact, the primary setting for the film is beneath ground in the laundry and storage rooms of an apartment building that's been otherwise levelled in a full-scale nuclear attack upon the city of New York.

It's Hell, alright. Though we're without the traditional trappings of Hades hellfire and bubbling lava, there's certainly plenty of roiling emotion within the ravaged, terrified, paranoid and even sociopathic minds of those who find themselves trapped in this coffin below the inferno of radiation and mass destruction.

Mickey (Michael Biehn) is the wired and wiry cigar puffing ruler of the roost - the building's super who lives in the basement and has equipped it with all the elements necessary to survive in the event of a Post-9/11 attack that makes the destruction of the Twin Towers seem like a zit-burst. He agrees to take in a few survivors, but as the story progresses, he clearly seems sorry he bothered. After all, this is his home, his own personal safe harbour and he expects compliance and downright subservience in accordance with his rules and manner of living. Alas, some of his charges are live wires - questioning his moves and motives every step of the way.

In this role, Biehn is nothing short of brilliant. In the late 80s and early 90s, he was one of the most exciting young actors in American cinema and poised to be a star with considerable leverage and longevity. As the stalwart hero in several James Cameron classics; The Terminator, Aliens and The Abyss, as well as his complex and electrifying performance in William Friedkin's criminally neglected courtroom thriller Rampage, Biehn eventually became a solid working actor - appearing in a lot of crap - always doing fine work, but ultimately rising as far as anyone could above substandard material. Exceptions to this were his appearances in Bereavement and Planet Terror, but his performance in The Divide is not only dazzling, but rendered in a movie worthy of his considerable talents. It's not quite what you'd call a comeback role, since he's never really been gone, but I'd still say it's a breakthrough performance and one that makes me hope he'll be on the receiving end of increasingly better roles. (I'd happily, for example, donate my right testicle to science to see him opposite Michael Shannon in a new William Friedkin picture. Hey, a boy can dream, can't he?)

Happily, Biehn is surrounded by a terrific cast in a movie that's directed with all the pizzaz and unyielding aplomb of the talented Xavier Gens (I loved Hitman). With Gens at the helm, The Divide is one splendidly horrific tale that features a microcosmic look at humanity under duress. We have a young, married couple on the brink of divorce, a tough-minded African American who senses their protector is hiding something, a middle aged Mom (the welcome presence of Rosanna Arquette) with a terrified young daughter and two foul bad boys who get a whole lot badder than we're prepared to imagine.

And then there are the armed, weird-ass scientists in protective garb - kidnapping surviving children and performing the most horrendous experiments upon them.

And, lest we forget, there's the septic system. Once the ragtag band of survivors are literally welded into the underground coffin with no means of escape, we discover that a swim through a tunnel of fecal matter is the only way out. Any guesses whether someone eventually wades through the gloppy, glistening, stench-ridden tunnels?

As tensions rise, so do the acts of inhumanity - bullying, beatings, murder, torture, and even forced sexual slavery. If you're looking for a shred of hope, you might not find it in The Divide, but like all well constructed drama of this kind, the thing you look for in earnest amidst the depravity, comes from the unlikeliest places at the least expected moments. Yes, humanity is buried deep within this pit of horror.

Without question, the tense human conflict and emotion of this film is charged to the max. Gens seldom lets us rest easy as an audience. We always have to be on our toes - evil lurks around every corner and the movie jolts us time and time again. This is not to say the exploitative elements are paint-by-numbers. They're earned. They're rooted in character and story. The movie terrifies, dazzles AND moves us tremendously. Most amazingly, we almost NEVER leave the confines of the basement. Lesser films blatantly use this as a cost-cutting measure, but in The Divide, it never seems like a story rooted in a machine-tooled setting to yield maximum production value for minimum dollars. So many lower-budgeted genre films are too self-aware of these limitations and we're taken out of the drama because of it.

Not so, here.

To coin a phrase from George Romero's Dawn of the Dead: "When there's no more room in Hell, the Dead will walk the Earth." In The Divide, it's the other way around. Hell is above ground and the living dead walk BELOW the Earth.

And in this Hell, there's plenty of room for the living dead.

The Divide will hopefully receive a proper theatrical release soon. In the meantime, it screened as part of the first-rate Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2011, delivering yet another triumph for the premiere genre event in Canada.

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