Directed by Xavier Gens
Written by Karl Mueller, Eron Sheean
The Divide, directed by Xavier Gens, had its world premiere as part of SXSW’s midnight series this week. The film delivered midnight-appropriate content, like torture, rape and stinky corpses, but not much more. Gens didn’t know if he was making a horror film or a psychological thriller about the unraveling of humanity under extreme circumstances. So as a result, neither film got made.
The film opens with Eva and her husband, Sam, running down the stairs of their crumbling apartment complex as bombs fall from the sky. They barely make it into the basement with a handful of others before the apartment super slams the metal door shut. Naturally, the characters want to know what’s happening outside, but a one-man search mission only brings confusion and despair. So the group gives over to life trapped in the basement with little hope for the future, and the next weeks bring attempts to survive both their environment and each other.
With a horror film we expect and want some suspense, some “gotcha moments,” some scenes that make you cover your eyes in fear rather than disgust. Those elements are all there in Gens’ 2007 French horror film Frontiers. When the lights go out in Frontiers, the characters and the audience are thrown into darkness often with nothing more than a lighter or a camcorder for guidance. But in The Divide, when the lights go out, the view for the audience is just dimmed, while the characters walk around tenderly, pretending they can’t see. With The Divide the element of surprise is rarely used and we’re left with a basement full of people eating cans of beans, cutting each others’ fingers off, raping women, yelling “Do it! Do it! Do it!” in frat house fashion to pressure someone into cutting up a body with an axe.
At their worst, the dominant male characters, Bobby (Michael Eklund) and Josh (Milo Ventimiglia) conjure up the apocalyptic gang that father and son come across in The Road. In that film, desperate men and women keep live humans chained up in their basement and amputate them whenever they need fresh meat - but they literally had no food left. Sure, the characters from The Divide are stuck in a basement behind a door that’s been welded shut by some mysterious Asian scientists in radiation suits. Admittedly, that’s pretty rough. But throughout the film, they’re still surviving off of a fully stocked pantry of water, beans, spam and more. One might expect the insanity to crank up up as that stock-pile dwindled, but we never see that happen.
Aesthetically, the film glistens with a sickly yellow and the blood sparkled crimson in a lovely way. The slick mutant look of half-naked Bobby and Josh after they shave their heads and eyebrows is creepy and intimidating. But the music is out of place. The soft ethereal notes from a piano that follow female lead Eva (Lauren German) around imply something deeper than anything we’re actually given on screen. The film tries to give the characters depth by attaching a sob story to each one; one’s gay (at least he’s constantly being called a ‘fag’), one’s an ex-crack addict, one has flashbacks of his dead wife, etc. But these back-stories are never explored and the characters and their dialogue remain one-dimensional.
The Divide wants to be an adult Lord of the Flies and it wants to be Hostel, but it isn’t either. I’m not afraid of what’s around the corner in this film, nor is it an interesting study of what humans are capable of when society’s norms are removed. The second the words “septic” and “tank” are heard, it’s clear that someone will end up down there, wading through poop. The film, however, caused enough of a stir at its premier last Sunday that distribution company Anchor Bay bought up the rights, according to the Hollywood Reporter. So it looks like you’ll be able to decide for yourself what to make of it.