Hailing from the new school of extreme French horror, director Xavier Gens made his feature debut with Frontier(s), an exceedingly grim thriller that trapped four inner-city hoodlums in a countryside inn operated by cannibalistic Nazis. So it’s no great surprise that Gens’ new film, The Divide, which also confines the pressure-cooker action mainly to a single setting, takes a grim assessment of humanity in the wake of a nuclear blast. Given an hour without iPhones and Starbucks, the photogenic New Yorkers who congregate in an apartment basement become feral beasts, vying for power and conquest in a psychosexual Lord Of The Flies. This descent into stylized madness echoes the hysteria of Frontier(s), but out of the context of a horror film, it’s even less persuasive as a statement on man’s essential ugliness.
Opening with unsettling shots of New York besieged by nuclear bombs, The Divide hustles its eight characters into a sprawling basement area where they’re sealed off from the deadly radiation above. With no timetable on when, if ever, it will be safe to surface—in that sense, it’s like The Road in suggesting a possible end of humankind—the group settles into their own, surprisingly well-stocked ship of fools. As it happens, the janitor (Michael Biehn) claims the basement as his home, and his experience on September 11 seems to have prepared him for just such a contingency, but the others are quick to question his authority. When the younger generation, led by Milo Ventimiglia, successfully challenge Biehn for control, they take over the food and water supply and force the others (especially poor Rosanna Arquette, as a bereft mother) to accommodate their violent and sexual whims. Only Lauren German, the one character with a moral compass still pointing north, stands in their way.
As with Frontier(s), The Divide considers “intense” to be the greatest of aesthetic virtues, which here means actors shouting at each other at top volume for two hours, plus an escalating craziness that even a situation this dire doesn’t justify. Gens introduces—then mysteriously drops—a potentially intriguing science-fiction subplot about mystery men in HAZMAT suits, but he doesn’t pause for long before hitting the accelerator again. Better performances might have sold The Divide, but aside from Arquette’s fine work as a single mother driven to self-degradation, the cast amplifies the impression of a canned, one-act theater piece. Stuck in close quarters with these characters, life seems more appealing above ground.