The Divide, the latest film by Xavier Gens, opens not with a whimper but a bang as missiles level New York while Eva (Lauren German) watches the famous skyline turn a cloudy orange. As the residents fly down the stairs to escape their crumbling surroundings, a few manage to make it into the bomb-shelter basement where Mickey (Michael Biehn), the building’s super, is holding up. The handful of survivors – including stepbrothers Josh (Milo Ventimiglia) and Adrien (Ashton Holmes), their friend Bobby (Michael Eklund), a frightened mother and daughter (Rosanna Arquette and Abbey Thickson), Eva’s lesser and more passive half Sam (Ivan Gonzalez), and the selfish Delvin (Courtney B. Vance) – are at first merely grateful to be alive, but slowly succumb to the realization that that they may starve to death and never see the light of day again after men in hazmat suits seal them in, causing extreme levels of paranoia and distrust that reduces them to a caveman-like state of savagery.
Like Frontiere(s), The Divide showcases the downfall of humanity through the contrast of socially-accepted normalcy and the dark, primal nature we all have within ourselves. Trying to be authoritative, Mickey’s fascist antics give rise to mutiny and an anarchist ruling class, with Josh and Bobby in charge, where people are kept as sex slaves and dementia and cowardice run rampant. The film proves that there is no answer between whether the chicken or the egg comes first; as soon as a sense of order rears its head, chaos is born, giving way to order shortly thereafter and so on and so forth. One cannot exist without the other. For every step of progression the characters make towards making sense of things on their quest for survival, they take two back.
The performances are strong across the board, with Biehn doing his best work since The Abyss – and maybe of all-time – and Ventimiglia and Eklund giving intense, awe-inspiring turns as his adversaries who spiral downward from jock doofuses to abrasive dictators without any fear or trepidation. They eclipse the personality they were fighting against and become something much worse; it doesn’t help that they are surrounded by characters who are either selfish, afraid, or a combination of both, making their prey easily susceptible to influence. Only German’s Eva has her head on straight during the entire film, keeping her humanity at a steady level.
Gens and screenwriters Karl Mueller and Eron Sheenan keep dialogue to a minimum and let the situation at hand speak for itself rather than load the film with exposition about the survivors’ lives before the catastrophe. By doing so, Gens’ technique of shooting the film in sequence gives the actors’ increasingly grungy look more of an impact, as the immediacy of the physical and mental toll on their character is hammered home through appearance and body language.
The Divide is a terrifying and bleak vision of the future whose performances and images will stick with you for days after you watch it. Gens’ direction and Laurent Barès cinematography create a moody, claustrophobic atmosphere that never feels stale despite its closed-quarters setting. The tone is vile and the characters devolve into sickening states of being, but the reality-based approach to Gens’ end of days makes for one of the best apocalyptic tales in quite a while.