Xavier Gens’ follow-up to the grim Frontier(s) and the glossy Hitman, the fittingly grim and glossy The Divide opens and closes with a pair of chilling shots, bookending a two-hour stretch of post-apocalyptic misery both erratic and extreme.
New York has come under a vaguely nuclear attack and eight tenants of a Manhattan apartment building have made their way into the makeshift basement bunker for which Mickey (Michael Biehn), the xenophobic super, is conveniently responsible. Now, he’s lording over those he once served – survivor girl Eva (Lauren German), her boyfriend Sam (Ivan Gonzalez), single mom Marilyn (Rosanna Arquette), her daughter Wendy (Abbey Thickson), security guard Delvin (Courtney B. Vance), all-around punk Josh (Milo Ventimiglia), his sidekick Bobby (Michael Eklund) and his kinder half-brother Adrien (Ashton Holmes) – as they try to outlast the big booms and ensuing radiation.
What follows is a visually dingy and morally vacant cobweb-dusting of the old Lord of the Flies formula, as the survivors from day one proceed to go stir crazy while hope runs thin. Mickey’s misanthropic tendencies run hand-in-hand with those of Karl Mueller and Eron Sheean’s screenplay, as the initially intense scenario quickly devolves into hysteria and more numbingly nihilistic deeds after that. Precisely one ballsy notion is introduced twenty minutes in and then abandoned a reel later, succeeding only in extracting one aggravating character from the equation and adding even more means by which the remaining irritants can eventually eliminate one another.
We’re allowed no grasp on the exact progression of time, and while that may be a realistic hurtle for the characters to face given the circumstance, its absence is dramatically frustrating as Gens burrows away from any semblance of relief or release. If the sheer litmus test for effective horror is discomfort, then The Divide succeeds in spades, though it does so at the cost of even the simplest stakes in anyone’s survival. As our barely-there heroine, German mostly earns the mantle of rooting interest for being a sole beacon of compassion, an infrequent target of rape and torture, and a suppressed desire to kill her comrades out of self-preservation. But even before the rations run low, Biehn, Arquette, Ventimiglia and Eklun take turns tearing into the scenery with tiresome abandon.
No scenes rival the eerie show-don't-tell power of the first and final frames, and no performance is too broad, no situation too bleak, no political parallel too obvious for this hell of other people. As a result, the film ultimately resembles a parody of depravity rather than a harrowing depiction of such behavior. And just when it seems like Gens has run out of grimy corners to film in this improbably deep basement/impossibly shallow playground for the id, his camera decides to rove through air vents and keyholes, desperate to keep the viewer as slickly trapped in these skeevy rooms as possible.
On paper, The Divide delivers everything that horror fans might want from a post-apocalyptic thriller – rape, self-immolation, youngster harvesting, throat-slitting, more rape – everything, that is, except a reason to care.