Can one describe a film as a nihilistic wallow in human depravity and still recommend it? That’s the question The Divide offers to viewers, and judging by the scathing early criticisms, most of them have responded with a resounding “no.” This is not a film one enjoys in the traditional sense, nor does it offer any hope for the better angels of our nature. We see human beings at their absolute worst, and we have nowhere to run from their behavior. To say the least, that’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
And yet, the condemnations seemingly overlook how brutally effective it can be at times. It pulls no punches and takes no prisoners: looking the Gorgon in the face without so much as a single flinch. In the end, it proved too much for me, but I won’t deny the film its due just because it didn’t quite hit my wavelength. One certainly can’t fault it for not staying on message. The set up certainly gives ample warning of the carnage to follow. The bomb falls on Manhattan Island, and the residents of an anonymous apartment complex have to scramble to save their lives. A small number force their way into the basement, where the building’s super (Michael Biehn) has set up a surprisingly effective shelter. They can’t go outside because of the radioactivity, and the limited supplies only last for so long. Soon enough, we fall into Lord of the Flies territory, as morality falls away and the group breaks into homicidal factions to see who’s left standing.
Director Xavier Gens revels in the depths to which his characters will sink, as we skirt across sexual slavery, cannibalism and the way nominally decent people make them both sound perfectly rational. Only one figure – Lauren German’s quiet Eva – holds onto her humanity, as the remainder succumb to despairing insanity and tear each other apart just for kicks. Within that framework, however, Gens finds some rather intriguing role reversals, as supposed monsters turn out to be better than we initially thought and early heroes ultimately become threats to be destroyed. Considering that he limits his action to a single set – and that the film’s intensity comes largely from cast members bellowing at each other – the nuance on display comes as a big surprise.
Of course, in order to appreciate that, you have to distance yourself from the horrific behavior on display… which kind of defeats the whole purpose of the exercise. The Divide has no faith in our species, and wants us to share that belief in the most intimate terms. Critics assume we wouldn’t act this way when the chips are down, but when you miss a few meals and have nowhere else to go, it’s not hard to turn needling irritation into sociopathic hatred. The Divide never sugar-coats that truth, and as we sink deeper and deeper into depravity, we ask ourselves whether we would behave any better in the same circumstances.
Thus kind of brick-to-the-face filmmaking makes for tough viewing, but “unpleasant” isn’t the same thing as “incompetent” and I have to give props for The Divide’s sheer unflinching nerve. Ironically, its biggest problems lie more in certain lingering plot threads than its deliberately downbeat tone. A wonderful twist in the first act promises great things, as men in HAZMAT suits break into the bunker and spirit away the lone child in the group before opening fire on the remainder. It throws a fascinating wrinkle into the mix and for a time, The Divide seems to concentrate fully on who they are and what their agenda is. Sadly, Gens abandons the concept about forty minutes in and never picks it up again, leaving frustratingly unanswered questions in its wake. They serve no function in the larger context – nothing that couldn’t be fixed with a revised prop invoice and a few dropped characters – and beyond paving the way for a thoroughly unlikely sequel, might just as well have come from a different movie.
That sloppiness compounds the already difficult material and turns The Divide into a lost opportunity rather than the pitch-black meditation it clearly wants to be. It ultimately fails on its own terms… though admittedly not before giving it one hell of a run. The self-righteous condemnation currently raining down upon it misses the point; one cannot condemn an apple just because it isn’t an orange. A pity that it couldn’t focus its material more pointedly, or deliver is vision with something other than brass balls in its corner.