Monday, January 4, 2010

I've Always Depended on the Kindness of Strangers

Survival horror can be a tricky but terrific genre. Able to tap into powerful human instincts and nature's savagery with taut, simplistic thrills, they're often just as likely to provide blank-slate characters for audience projection and one choreographed set-piece after another. Eden Lake (2008) does indeed do much of the same, but with enough awareness and angle to toughen the blow: its heavenly setting will inevitably become a bleak battleground. Kids are burnt and bludgeoned, yuppies are forced to hide in feces; such is this hard-hearted tale of human nature that's rotting and left for dead. A once majestic natural quarry is now the site of a dumpster filled with shit.

A pretty preschool teacher (Kelly Reilly) plays peekaboo with her toddlers, only to be given the greatest sense of irony later as she hides from a group of traumatizing teenagers armed with box-cutters and videophones. James Watkins debut is an interesting comment on the "killer kids" genre that we've seen more readily in recent years, most notably a film like Ils (Them) or even Larry Clark's Bully. While these unfeeling adolescents (or "hoodies" if we're being properly British) are knowingly given few characteristic quirks, the film still makes a point to comment on a society no longer dependant on the kindness of strangers.

Don't be a stranger, Michael Fassbender.

Our attractive young couple (Michael Fassbender in swim trunks!) at the center of the chaos has their parking spot stolen, suffer kids playing loud music, bikers cutting them off in an intersection, boorish bartenders, and townsfolk refusing directions. Every attempt by the couple to remain civil in their surroundings is subverted into a sadistic trap as the strangers reveal their self-centered and extreme soullessness. The adolescents of Eden Lake start out as simply rude ruffians but become utterly ruthless. It's clearly something that has been passed down to them more readily than used cars and clothing in this socially malevolent, ironically named British haven. It's a film about the sins of asshole fathers revisited on their asshole sons, revisited on their asshole fathers.

Why couldn't they just be doing drugs?

The film does look fondly on human nature's will to survive amidst such an often ugly and unfeeling world, even briefly celebrating our young lovers impending engagement... Of course that's after he has already been impaled by a tree and sliced to ribbons, and she's been forced to watch. Nasty and nihilistic it is, but all the same thoughtful and tense in its manipulations. These characters exist in the same distrustful world chaos as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Last House on the Left or Wolf Creek, where momentary glimmers of hope quickly become detours into the hellish hands of disturbed people driven by absolutely nothing. Eden Lake stays true to its most base survival instincts, but it ultimately survives this because of a sharp and savage mood of social decay. It gives the audience a beating to be sure, but then in this day and age, that's just child's play.

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