Toronto After Dark 2011: THE DIVIDE Review
Not a moment is given before the gorgeously apocalyptic opening of Xavier Gens new film sees its cast of characters barricaded in the basement bunker of a New York City high-rise. Then the few survivors have all the time in the world, stuck with each other after the world end. Such is the premise of The Divide, a film that is more icky than it is beautiful, as if someone decided to make a less-parable, less-arty version of Fernando Meirelles and José Saramago's Blindness with video-game aesthetics as book-ends. The Divide is not so much about anything, but much like the directors previous, and quite furious film, Frontier(s), it plays out the situation that leaves little to the imagination, and more than a fair bit of wincing from this viewer. For the film takes its little neo-society of under a dozen and puts them through a hell that one character foreshadows, "but you are going to be swimming through a whole lotta godawful shit before you get out." Yea, that about sounds right.
The actor who utters this phrase, is none other than Michael Biehn, who James Cameron endeared to science fiction geeks everywhere with the soldier-of-fortune 3-punch: The troubled freedom figher Kyle Reese in The Terminator, stalwart and reliable Cpl. Hicks in Aliens and hair-trigger nutter Lt. Coffey in The Abyss. To say the dude has INTENSE down pat is an understatement, and that Gens has more than a little worship of the actor doing his thing onscreen is apparent. Case in point, Biehn's first line of dialogue is "Let there be light." So that kind of says everything we need to know. Biehn plays Mickey, a retired NYC Firefighter turned superintendent - maybe a tad racist - and tightly wound-up nutter, but one that good sense to have a fully stocked bunker in the basement just in case New York takes another pounding from, his words, those towel-heads. He is stand-offish and intimidating towards his new found roommates: Josh, a gay man (ex-Heroes star Milo Ventimiglia) his lover Bobby (Michael Eklund) and younger brother (Ashton Holmes), an older mom (Rosanna Arquette) and her pre-teen daughter, a black guy (Courtney B. Vance), a lawyer (Iván González) and his wife Eva (Lauren German) who looks enough like Milla Jovovich that one suspects she be start kicking some ass later on. I list the characters as 'types' here and there is a reason for it. The film is not so much interested in developing character as it is tightening the panic-screws on the trapped souls. Initially there are guys in Hazmat suits that have lots of plastic and lab equipment, but little interest in helping anyone. When they take the daughter out of the equation, this is a an act of mercy for the audience considering the five rings of hell the film descends into from there on out.
With a beautiful stedicam roaming the basement, and time passing at a crawl, the group divides (natch) along the level headed stalwarts, the stir crazy, and the dead, and well, Michael Biehn is is kind of all of the above. Overhead fluorescent lighting makes the faces of Ventimiglia and an about-a-nine-on-the-wacko-scale Eklund resemble skulls. The dwindling living attend to such inevitable tasks of chopping up a corpse or two and disposing of the body parts in the lonely lime-limned septic toilet, while rationing out the dwindling food and water supplies. It is grim stuff, and the director lets the audience bear witness enough cruel acts to make the ensuing tension palpable. The Divide is going to split audiences (sorry, couldn't resist) with its duel nature both as a gristly horror freak-show, and a slow-burn science fiction thriller. If you read between the lines, you won't find subtext as much as a delicious sense of ironic - and laconic - humour; perhaps the films chief surprise. Filmed in real time with the actors on a strict diet, you watch them physically (and mentally) waste away as the show goes on and the radiation in the air supply starts hair falling out. After a rough start of not giving a sweet damn about anyone except for scenery chewing Biehn, the strong willed Eva begins to emerge, all Ripley-like. Gens clearly has a hard-on for the Alien franchise, most in particularly, David Fincher's entry which is echoed here, and often. Amongst the morally and physically rotting menfolk, she somehow manages to stay Lancôme-luminous. At one point it is hinted that she may or may not be pregnant, but the name enough has the implication in this brave new world. She just might have to strip down to her underwear and swim upstream in that river of shit.