Wednesday, April 18, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE DIVIDE (2012)


Directed by Xavier Gens.  Written by Karl Mueller and Eron Sheean.  Cast: Lauren German, Michael Biehn, Milo Ventimiglia, Courtney B. Vance, Rosanna Arquette, Ashton Holmes, Michael Eklund, Ivan Gonzalez, Abbey Thickson. (Unrated, 122 mins)

French director Xavier Gens' 2008 release FRONTIER(S) established him as an ambitious new voice in horror cinema, though he also had the dismal HITMAN in theaters in late 2007 (FRONTIER(S) was made first).  The postnuke endurance test THE DIVIDE is Gens' long-awaited follow-up, and it finds him back in the nihilistic "extreme" mode of FRONTIER(S) as he was reportedly unhappy with his experiences doing HITMAN for a major studio.  I'm usually drawn to that peculiar brand of cinema that tries to see just how much you can withstand, but THE DIVIDE is essentially SALO in a bomb shelter, wallowing in misery, degradation, and boredom for over two hours.

When nuclear warheads fall on NYC, a small group of apartment dwellers manage to find shelter in a basement fortified for such an occasion by the super (Michael Biehn).  After about two minutes where everyone just seems mildly inconvenienced, tensions mount and tempers flare over things like the monotony of eating beans all the time to concerned mom Rosanna Arquette wanting people to stop smoking.  There's also Arquette's young daughter Abbey Thickson; Lauren German, who's possibly pregnant (it's mentioned in passing, then forgotten); her spineless fiance Ivan Gonzalez; conscientious Courtney B. Vance, who seems to have some kind of military experience; leather-jacketed Michael Eklund (who, right after the bombs hit and Biehn seals the steel door, flicks a smoke and declares "I'm gonna take a shit"), and half-brothers Milo Ventimiglia (short-fused dickhead) and Ashton Holmes (sensitive acoustic guitar type). Some guys in Haz-Mat suits come in and Biehn and Vance manage to kill three of them, but not before another takes Thickson away and then the door is welded shut, leaving these characters--and us--confined to the bunker for the duration.  Forget even having time for cabin fever to set in.  These people are unbearable assholes from the get-go.  I think showing the ugliness of humanity was probably the idea, but it doesn't work when it's done in such scenery-chewing fashion: Biehn growls, chomps on a cigar, and blames it all on "the ragheads."  Ventimiglia and Eklund immediately form a bizarre bond where they just bully everyone, particularly Arquette, who cracks quickly and becomes an eager and willing sex slave to the two of them (I wonder if the anal sex scene with Eklund, during which he smears baked beans over her back between thrusts while Ventimiglia watches and masturbates will end up on her career highlight reel), and Gonzalez constantly has his manhood tested. 

Alliances form and shift throughout, and there are some admittedly interesting character arcs that take place, especially in the climax.  Gens and writers Karl Mueller and Eron Sheean take a pretty big risk late in the game with German's character that immediately changes the dynamic of the entire structure, but an inventive idea 115 minutes into a 122-minute film is, to say the least, tardy.  Elsewhere, Gens only seems interested in shock value:  the decomposing bodies of the three Haz-Mat guys start to stink up the place, so dismemberment and disposal in the septic tank is required.  Roaches multiply amidst the rotted food.  Bodies deteriorate over the unspecified time, and hair and teeth start falling out.  When a power shift takes place and Ventimiglia and Eklund gain control, then it's time for some random torture, garish application of makeup, cross-dressing, treating people like dogs and making them beg for food, trangressive moments involving bowel movements and menstrual blood (necrophilia is also implied), and, in what is apparently a recurrent Gens motif from FRONTIER(S), a heroine forced to swim through shit. I know how she feels.

All of this would have some kind of effect if Gens had any kind of commentary to make.  But it's just overwrought and unbelievable, with six capable actors who seem to be engaged in a contest to see who gets the last morsel of scenery remaining (I exclude two from those charges, as German keeps it under control for the most part, as does Vance, who if anything, seems slightly embarrassed to be in this).  There's also gratuitous 9/11 invocations to unsuccessfully convince the viewer that this is a serious film.

THE DIVIDE received mostly negative reviews during its limited theatrical release three months ago, but Arquette was singled out as delivering a "brave" performance.  I think it's a terrible performance and one that isn't at all "brave."  For all the humiliation her character endures, something seemed oddly disingenuous about her portrayal, and near the end, I realized what it was.  As Eklund and Ventimiglia repeatedly abuse and violate her, she's almost completely nude except for duct-tape around her breasts and genitals.  Would they really take the time to cover her private areas?  This was clearly a case of Arquette drawing the line with what she wanted to show.  I'm not saying I demand or require nudity, but it seems utterly absurd that she'd be partially covered in these scenes with the levels of humiliation taking place.  And it's one thing for Gens to screw up the geography of NYC (they're in NYC, but when someone makes it outside, they're looking at the NYC skyline from Brooklyn), but he can't even keep the layout of the bomb shelter straight.  Who cares if that's not where the toilets have been through the whole film?  That's where Gens needed them to be for the climax to work, so what the hell?  Maybe he figured everyone would've bailed by then and it wouldn't matter.  And it really doesn't.

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