REVIEW: The Divide Drowns Flat Characters in Arty, Apocalyptic Gloss
Mickey (Michael Biehn), the paranoid building superintendent unwillingly responsible for allowing the characters in The Divide to survive the apocalypse, didn't plan for or want company. And who can blame him? These people are awful. Like so many groups left in a survival situations (at least in movies, books and MTV reality shows), they shed their veneer of civilization with alarming rapidity as their lives take a turn for the worse.
Written by Karl Mueller and Eron Sheean and directed by Xavier Gens, who earned a place for himself in the New French Extreme movement with his 2007 Frontier(s) before heading to Hollywood to make Hitman, The Divide is a stylish and would-be shocking variation on a familiar scenario, in which the horrors isolated survivors inflict on each other turn out to be worse than those lurking outside. Gens has talent, if also tendencies to steer the visuals into the music video realm, but he treats the characters here like mobile props and nothing more -- the curve of a shaved skull or a tear trickling down a cheek just another bit of nice art direction on the gradual path toward the inevitable destruction of everyone on screen.
What happened to the outside world is left to speculation -- what looks like a bomb hits the city in the first scene, sending the inhabitants of a New York apartment building scrambling downstairs in search of shelter. Eight people force their way into Mickey's shelter in the basement before he locks the door. There's angular heroine Eva (Lauren German), her whiny French fiancé Sam (Iván González), Delvin (Courtney B. Vance), Bobby (Michael Eklund), brothers Josh (Milo Ventimiglia) and Adrien (Ashton Holmes), and Marilyn (Rosanna Arquette) and her daughter Wendy (Abbey Thickson). Mickey has food and water saved up, though not enough -- at least not after strange men in hazmat suits barge into the underground shelter, kidnap the little girl, and weld the door shut on the remaining inhabitants.
Hell may be other people, but it can also be scenarios in which people endlessly bicker their way to certain doom (this is why I find The Walking Dead so hard to watch). Power games, alliances and divisions break out as time passes with no hope of rescue or an end, and as the characters grow more unstable and unhealthy, teeth falling out, hair growing patchy as they sit in the dark. Josh establishes himself as the alpha male, sharing Marilyn with Bobby in a scenario that degrades into violent sexual slavery -- Arquette deserves either kudos or condolences for the degree to which she surrenders to a role that finds her being chained up, continually degraded and humiliated, treated like a dog, and smearing makeup on her face like some kind of crazed goth dolly. Eva is forced to protect Sam, who's at the bottom of the totem pole, though she's drawn to Adrien, who holds on to his sanity as the situation falls apart.
These characters are at best doodles, and none of the performances are able to tease more depth out of them -- the hints at history between them, like how Sam and Eva met, or the strained relationship between Josh and Adrien, are so sparse that when they're thrown in they confuse more than they illuminate. The sprinkles of political relevance are clunkier and more problematic. Any film these days that includes the destruction of the New York skyline is going to calls up echoes of 9/11, but The Divide strongly suggests that Mickey was a firefighter working that day whose issues and isolation are all related to that trauma, from his convictions that "the ragheads" are responsible for bombing the city to his creation of the underground bunker, decorated with an American flag. (Admittedly, Gens makes the Frenchman the least likable character -- if the film's a rough metaphor for a world in decline, the U.S. isn't alone in taking on the chin.)
At two hours, with its elegiac tone and deliberate pacing, The Divide may lose gorehounds before it gets around to the finger chopping and corpse dismemberment. While there certainly are moments that will have the sensitive covering their eyes, the film's most disturbing imagery isn't actually related to carnage. A segment in which Josh heads outside to attempt to figure out what the suited-up soldiers are up to has a hallucinatory, medical nightmare feel to it, rich with the promise of terrible things going on just beyond our comprehension. Later, two characters shave their heads and eyebrows and transform themselves into near-alien figures out of a Matthew Barney video.
Gens's deftness with these visuals, and with the claustrophobic glide of his camera through the dim warrens of the underground space in which The Divide is almost exclusively set, is undeniable. It's his apparent disinterest in the people filling it that makes the film such an uphill battle, in which the world ends and you can't wait for the survivors just kill each other off already.