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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

THE DIVIDE -- DVD review by porfle

A societal microcosm descends into savagery in THE DIVIDE (2011), a harrowing post-apocalyptic nightmare that's as queasily fascinating as a slow-motion train wreck.

Who's firing the missiles doesn't matter to the terrified tenants of a New York apartment building as they flee into the basement and force their way through the steel door of a fallout shelter just as landlord-survivalist Mickey (Michael Biehn) is slamming it shut.  The eight refugees cower as their unwilling host describes what they're hearing--aerial attack from some foreign foe, a probable nuclear blast, and the din of their own building collapsing above them.  Relative safety and a flickery power generator will only delay the eventual breakdown of this motley group as they begin to run out of food and water and the restraints of civility slowly erode.

There are shades of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD with alpha males Mickey and Delvin (Courtney B. Vance, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER) fighting for dominance of the claustrophobic fortification.  But nothing's as simple as that, and their most dangerous mutual enemy won't come from the outside (with one chilling exception) but from within.  The trouble is, it's too early to tell who that enemy will be, even for those who will themselves transform into inhuman monsters.

The aforementioned exception comes when unknown invaders take a cutting torch to the door and enter in radiation suits, fully armed and acting like anything but a rescue party.  We never learn the exact motives of these mysterious interlopers, but their sudden, seemingly irrational attack adds to the helplessness and confusion that plague the survivors while serving up one of the film's most nail-biting suspense sequences. 

The group dynamic devolves as baser instincts gradually take over, until the situation begins to bring out the absolute worst in some characters.  There are no really stand-out crazies or bad guys at first, and even the ones who turn out to be the worst of the lot show some positive qualities, including heroism, before their descent into madness.  Thus, our allegiances are tentative and confused much of the time.  Even the characters who struggle the hardest to hold onto their humanity and compassion find themselves weakening and giving way to the dark side.

The outstanding ensemble cast (including a soulful Lauren German of HOSTEL: PART II) work together beautifully, each bringing everything they have to their roles.  Michael Biehn (THE TERMINATOR, TOMBSTONE, THE ABYSS) makes the most of what may be his most challenging role ever with a fierce performance that tops everything else he's ever done.  We're never really sure about his character--is Mickey only out for himself, or is his suspicious behavior simply the result of him making hard and unpopular decisions for the good of the largely unappreciative group?  Biehn has ample opportunity to pour everything he's got into it after some of the others turn on Mickey in a horrendous act of barbarism.

Even more effective is Rosanna Arquette as Marilyn, a mother who's totally unbalanced by the loss of her daughter.  At first it appears as though the character will go catatonic and fade into the periphery a la NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD's "Barbara", until suddenly Arquette bursts forth with a fierce intensity that's both surprising and exhilarating.  The utter degradation of her character as she accomodates the basest desires of the most bestial survivors is shocking and disheartening.

Viewers are constantly made to work out for themselves who's right or wrong as the situation becomes more complicated and utter desperation sets in, with total depravity finally becoming the norm.  Even a shocking betrayal during the breathless finale is thrilling because it displays such initiative--we're suddenly on the edge of our seats rooting for someone who may not deserve our support at all, while others are undeservedly consigned to their doom. 

Director Xavier Gens does a great job of keeping his roving camera on the move and picking out the most interesting ways to shoot what could've been a pretty static movie.  The editing is masterful, serving as an example of how to use rapid-fire cutting in a way that's visually interesting and informative instead of confusing (a la QUANTUM OF SOLACE).  Set design, camerawork, lighting, sound, and an evocative musical score are also used to outstanding effect.

The DVD from Anchor Bay is in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen with English Dolby Digital 5.1 and Spanish mono sound, with subtitles in English and Spanish.  Extras consist of a director and cast commentary track and the film's trailer.  A Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack is also available. 

As harshly unflinching as the British nuclear-apocalypse classic THREADS, THE DIVIDE is strong stuff for those who like their drama pitch dark, richly perverse, and borderline abusive--I felt almost as wrung-out as the characters when it was over.  The downbeat ending manages to convey a serene acceptance of the inevitable that's haunting.

Buy it at
Blu-Ray/DVD combo

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