SXSW Movie Review: ‘The Divide’
I caught (that verb seems appropriate) Xavier Gens’ (Hitman, Frontier(s)) The Divide as a midnight screener at the Ritz theatre, and by far the best thing I can say about the experience is that the volunteers running the show just let us in instead of making us wait in line and thus subjecting us to the depraved drunken antics of 6th Street on St. Patrick’s Day. By far.
Of the two dozen films I’ve seen at SXSW, this is easily the worst (beating out even the agonizing ponderousness of Silver Bullets—that at least had some laughs and exhibitionistic women). It starts out impressively enough, with a cold open that throws you straight into the onset of a nuclear apocalypse, with big, loud explosions, screaming viscera, panicking droves, and the like before slapping you in the face with the title screen, but after that it settles in to devolving into a bargain-basement “people stuck in a shelter” psychological thriller, which is to say populated by the usual clichés—the crazy veteran (Michael Biehn), the flighty mother (Roseanna Arquette), the coward (Ivan Gonzalez), the budding psycho (Milo Ventimiglia)—and a host of others whose sole purpose is to scream and make stupid decisions—and yes, there’s a screamy child, too.
And oh, what stupid decisions they make: failing to attack the psycho when they have the chance; attacking the wrong guy when they do work up the “nerve”; neutralizing the only person who displays any sort of competence; killing the black guy first, and all other head-slapping tropes you can imagine. My father once criticized The Dark Knight because he reasoned that someone just should’ve shot the Joker. I don’t quite agree with him there, but his criticism is wholly applicable here—the villains provide every opportunity and even contrive a few to be shot, stabbed, brained, clubbed, electrocuted, bored-to-death, incinerated, irradiated, castrated, chopped, hung, drowned, and whatever else this lazy mind can’t think of at the moment, and the good guys let each one pass by as though they have some subconscious desire to die, assuming, of course, the script provided them with the necessary psychological depth. If Shiva herself came down, put a gun in someone’s hand and told them to pull the trigger, they wouldn’t do it. Shiva, and Vishnu, too.
And it’s doubly irritating to see good actors give poorly written characters their all. I started out angry at the film’s direction, and by the end I just felt sorry for the cast—the material does not deserve these actors, and the harder they try, the more they reveal its disinterest in their characters. If asked, I could not describe a one of them beyond the actor who plays them and the stock character they represent. If pressed I could not say why each character ends up where they end up, other than it’s where the screenplay requires them to do so. And that is perhaps The Divide’s greatest flaw: It feels written. Thrillers like this require the characters to interact and react, and from those reactions, the tension, drama, and thrills arise. John Carpenter’s The Thing works because the characters’ reactions are plausible (and they’re not idiots). Wilford Brimley sabotaging the research station and slowly descending into insanity makes sense within the context of his character because he’s the smartest of the bunch and recognizes the larger danger the situation presents; conversely, the sissy guy from Heroes transforming himself into Marilyn Manson, totally unprovoked, does not.
The previous evening I had the pleasure of seeing Ti West’s The Innkeepers, another horror film, in the same theatre. That film understood the importance of character and delivered two leads whose chemistry is so charming, that the horror element almost need not exist. But it does, and when it takes that turn (after a very effective and deliberate buildup), it’s all the scarier because I cared deeply for the characters. The Divide, on the other hand, is just a constant, loud barrage of empty screams.