A rowdy trendy horror-comedy combo, Severance takes dual aim at global arms dealing and mundane office politics. This focus makes it trendy in multiple arenas, but you needn’t hold that against it. Full of energy and appealing recklessness even when the jokes are obvious, the movie isn’t so tedious as suggested by its opening scene — big-breasted women running in abject terror from men with guns.
This first scene — all handheld jarring and screams — does establish what will be a pervasive hectic-ness. Following the running ladies and bloody excess, the action cuts back to How They Got There, namely an office retreat for a sales team employed by Palisade Defence. At once gleeful and graphic, Chris Smith’s movie extends its joke to a mock website extolling the company’s motto: “We’re hitting a home run for freedom and giving terrorism a time out!” Such combination of un-blocked metaphors indicates the film’s approach as well, throwing up numerous grotesqueries and gags to see what sticks. Just so, the sales team is cast off into the Hungarian woods for their retreat: daytime darkness, isolation, a legacy of fairy tales and guerrilla combat: the place is made for everything to go wrong.
As the team peruses their latest “marketing strategy,” the members alternately congratulate themselves and display their too-smart-for-this-business boredom: while budding social activist Jill (Claudie Blakley) worries briefly about the actual objects they’re selling, Steve (Danny Dyer) heads into the bus bathroom to smoke, emerging in a cloud (ba-dum-bump). When the TV in the bus displays their new ad for “anti-personnel devices you can rely on,” it’s clear their skills are limited, though their products probably sell themselves. At the same time, they begin to grumble about the weekend to come, or what their resident cheerleader calls their “chance to find out about ourselves.” Right.
On cue, the bus reaches what might be the “Serbian border” and their driver, who’s apparently seen this movie before, refuses to go any further. Abandoned in the scary woods, the team picks up their suitcases and walks, Maggie (Laura Harris, the nasty-sweet-looking blond terrorist on 24‘s Day Two) in heels. On reaching their appointed lodge, the team goes through a couple of rudimentary motions (a group dinner, a paintball competition) before they realize — definitively — that they are not alone.
At this point, the movie pitches headlong into the kill-em-all velocity it will sustain for the duration, with team members transformed into slasher film victims (complete with the requisite homoerotic/phobic alluding). Masked, looming, and ferocious, these assailants are not so interesting and also unidentified (stated possibilities include escaped asylum inmates and “war criminals, soldiers who liked the killing a little bit too much”), but they serve their most manifest function: the sales team ends up bonding in the face of extreme duress and implacable opponents: there is, after all, “no reasoning with the mentally insane.”
All the players serve predictable functions: dorky white team leader Richard (Tim McInnerny) and black executive assistant Billy (Babou Ceesay) are generically doomed; the seemingly only-self-interested Maggie proves resilient and organized, a Last Girl with a chip on her shoulder. Also predictably, the many abuses befalling the group are increasingly grisly: one loses his leg in a bear trap (a scene prolonged by repeated failed efforts to free him), another is burned alive by a flamethrower, still others are subjected to horrific guts-revealing tortures (the sort of excess familiar from Hostel and Turistas).
Though the dwindling survivors show gumption — however briefly — the killers remain sinister and lurky, cartoonish emblems of payback for the team’s crass profiteering. Utterly easy to dislike, arms dealers are also, it appears, easy to caricature. British Richard asserts tells American Maggie that they are not responsible for the rage being unleashed on them: “It’s a public company. Members of both our governments are on the board. They’re not going to do anything immoral!” Yes, we know. (For a smarter, sustained breakdown of systems, ambitions, and logical products of war as a business, see the much underappreciated Lord of War.) If it’s disinclined to innovate, Severance doesn’t distract with complications of politics or gore.