French director Xavier Gens first popped up on the horror radar with his 2007 film Frontier(s), a nasty little dystopian joint that played on all of our darker impulses and lust for brutality. Then he made Hitman. As you can imagine, movies based on videogames are questionable propositions, at best. In that realm, the Resident Evil franchise claims the high ground, and no one will claim those are great cinema. Hitman was deemed too violent by the studio, toned down through a series of Gens-free reshoots, and ultimately met with financial success at the box office despite a critical drubbing.
Gens’ latest offering, The Divide, returns to the elements that made genre fans stand up and take note. A brutal, post-apocalyptic story, The Divide explodes out of the starting blocks as Eva (Lauren German, Hawaii Five-O) watches a nuclear blast decimate New York City. In an understandable panic, Eva and the other residents of her apartment building flee to the basement. Their grim, urban-survivalist super Mickey (Michael Biehn, Terminator) has created his own pseudo fallout shelter, and nine survivors—including Milo Ventigmiglia (Heroes), Courtney B. Vance (Law & Order), Rosanna Arquette (Pulp Fiction), Michael Eklund (Hunt to Kill), Ashton Holmes (The Pacific), and Ivan Gonzales—hunker down to wait out the impending nuclear winter.
Compressed into minimal space, the tension intrinsically heightened, supplies running low, it’s only a matter of time before everyone reaches their breaking points. For the first two-thirds of The Divide, Gens uses this set up to great effect. The tenants butt heads, lobby for increasingly scarce resources, and attempt to grab power within the group. Secrets bubble to surface, tempers boil over, and the cramped space seethes with conflict. Gens’ camera deftly snakes around every tight turn, through dusty vents, and into every last corner of the dim bunker, pushing, pulling, and panning between every decimated face.
Unfortunately, the film goes on too long. The DVD of the unedited director’s cut has a run time of 122-minutes, but should hover around the 90 to 100-minute mark. When you reach the final act, the pace bogs down in melodrama and overacting. You get what Gens aims for. He constantly ratchets up the tension until there’s no choice but for the characters to do something drastic, which in this case is inevitably horrible, brutal, and violent. People lose their grip on sanity, and the horrors they keep hidden deep down in the depths of their souls tear through the surface. The result is murder, torture, and sexual debasement and cruelty.
That is all well and good, and par for the course in post-apocalyptic fiction, but the final act of The Divide falls into a caricature of a survival tale. It’s a lot of random yelling and sadism with little cause. The mental collapses happen a little too easily; you can tell right away who’s going to lost it the worst.
The film works best when the nine characters deal with the same questions that the audience asks: what the hell actually happened, and what’s happening now? The only glimpse into the outside world is confusing and disorienting, and leaves the group with even less of an idea of the situation, though much more fear dread. When that’s the focus, The Divide is at its best.
The steady hand of an editor could have smoothed things out, maintained the earlier pace, and made The Divide something powerful and special, though still flawed, instead of leaving it just okay. However, it’s worth watching for genre buffs, and comes very close to success. Gens film is not always easy to watch, but he has a flair for portraying the base and the brutal with a unique visual style.
The only extra on The Divide DVD is a commentary with Gens, and stars Ventimiglia, Eklund, and Biehn. At times the track tends towards the sycophantic, as the actors kiss up to Gens, saying what a unique, freeing experience it was to work with him. Standard stuff for this sort of thing. But there’s also a nice bit of insight into the finished film. Not only was The Divide shot in sequence, an exceedingly rare occurrence, but it was also largely improvised by the performers. There was a script, but one Gens used merely as a blueprint. More often than staging exacting scenes, he would instruct his actors to do what their characters would do, say what they would say, hide where they would hide. Definitely a different way to approach filming, and you can see why this would be refreshing for an actor. Combined with behind the scenes stories from set, this track stands out from the crowd.