Eva (Lauren German) presses her hand against a window as she watches nuclear bombs drop on New York City. Skyscrapers explode and then crumble. In the distance, walls of fire make their way across the skyline. Then comes Adrien (Ashton Holmes), who grabs Eva’s hand and brings her on a frantic scramble to the high-rise apartment building’s basement, where they fight against a surging crowd and stumble into a bomb shelter. The steel door is closed, the people hammering on it from the outside are incinerated, and the building collapses.
All of this happens in the first two minutes of director Xavier Gens’s (“Frontier(s),” “Hitman”) post-apocalyptic thriller, “The Divide.” This movie premiered at Austin’s South by Southwest Film Festival, and caused such a stir that it was soon after picked up by Anchor Bay. Now it is being given the limited release treatment, and it should eventually be a huge hit on home media, because “The Divide” boasts intense acting, a script with strong character development (and degradation), and was filmed in a unique fashion that makes the events unfolding on-screen seem real and scary as hell.
After the explosive beginning, Gens’s picture settles down for awhile, allowing you to blink the sweat out of your eyes and get to know the people who made it into the shelter, all nine of them. The shelter, a modestly sized three-roomer complete with septic toilet, drinkable water, electricity, and cans of baked beans, was created by Mickey (Michael Biehn), the apartment building’s super. Mickey feels that his tenants have invaded his private space, but he reluctantly gives them the grand tour and feeds them. In addition to Eva and Adrien, the tenants include: yuppie buddies Josh (Milo Ventimiglia) and Bobby (Michael Eklund); single mother Marilyn (Rosanna Arquette) and daughter Wendi (Abbey Thickson); Eva’s boyfriend Sam (Iván González); and Delvin (Courtney B. Vance).
This eclectic mix of individuals soon find that radioactive dust isn’t the only thing they have to worry about outside their concrete refuge. Indeed, when a group of men in HAZMAT suits break in, shoot up the place with “Gears of War”-type guns, and take Wendi away with them, Eva and the others realize that they haven’t certainly eluded death.
The biggest enemy of the shelter dwellers turns out not to be nukes or even the HAZMAT men. Instead, it’s each other. As supplies dwindle and attitudes and egos clash, people begin to turn on one another. Josh and Bobby dethrone Mickey and begin a ruling reign that gives them access to most of the food and liquor, while making everyone else endure things ranging from verbal and sexual abuse, to slice and dice torture.
Rookie screenwriters Karl Mueller and Eron Sheean have put together a story that is painful and brilliant in its execution. “The Divide” is a layered affair. It starts out as a tale of suspense; melts into a bunker-mentality, survivalist theme; and ends up in a pit of psychological transformations that makes you ask yourself: How would I react in this situation? The dialogue in the film is so important because almost the entire running time takes place in the shelter. Mueller and Sheean slowly build the tension between characters until violence explodes in horrifyingly believable situations.
These aren’t just cardboard characters, either. Even Josh and Bobby, two detestable dudes, have a human side that they show from time to time. This range of character emotions is strongly related to a writer having been on-set throughout the entire filming of “The Divide.” This writer worked with actors who wanted to re-write scenes because they didn’t like what their character was originally going to do. Sometimes these re-writes allowed people to steal scenes from others, creating an environment where producers were constantly being called to set to break up vehement fights over screen time between the cast members.
The cast includes a mix of old pros and young guns. Veteran actor Biehn (“Terminator,” “Planet Terror”) is fascinating in his role as Mickey. He keeps you guessing if he can be trusted, switching between benevolence and malevolence as he fights demons from his past and the mounting annoyance of having his own shelter invaded. In one scene he is tortured with a box cutter. His refusal to give into the pain and fear of losing a body part is gripping. I left the theater thinking that Biehn could eat nails for breakfast and still ask for more afterwards.
Descending from protective mother to slave for the aggressive men’s sexual desires, Arquette clutches a heartbreaking role to her chest and runs with it, squeezing every drop of despair out of Marilyn very effectively. Her glazed, dazed eyes still haunt me.
The most memorable acting, it can be argued, comes from Eklund. A Canadian actor who’s had a number of supporting roles over the past ten years, Eklund steals the show by butting heads with Biehn and the rest with a gleeful, resentful attitude. By improvising on set, Eklund gave himself a large amount of dialogue, most of which is spoken in a deceptively cheerful tone, even when he’s hurting somebody. Eklund’s transformation from nice-dressed brat to ravaged, bald beast is burned onto my brain. His performance as a villain is equal to that of Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight.” Seriously.
In addition to encouraging improvisation, Gens also filmed the movie in sequence, something that rarely happens today. It’s a great move, because as time goes by you can see the shelter dwellers building real anger at each other because they’re spending more time together in a small space. That anger can be felt like a tuning fork, starting out small and building to a raging crescendo that splits your eardrums. I do wish that Gens had added more light to his shots. Even though a shelter isn’t usually bright, the dimness is overbearing at times. Also, some scenes cut too fast, making it confusing to follow the action. These are avoidable distractions that take away from the dark magic on screen.
I give Gens’s latest film a solid four out of five stars, or a B+. If you have a strong enough stomach and you like amazing acting, then see this movie.
I saw the Twin Cities midnight premiere of “The Divide” at the Uptown Theatre in Minneapolis. Even though the crowd wasn’t huge, the atmosphere was electric. I even got a fake can of Ration Beans, a direct nod to Biehn’s supply of food in the flick. If you want to watch independent movies in a historic setting, go to the Uptown Theatre. They’ve got a sweet lineup of movies showing over the next month, and they’ll treat you well there.
“The Divide” is unrated. It has a running time of 2 hours and 2 minutes, and was given a limited release beginning January 13, 2012.