“Not exactly the Garden of Eden.” Surveying the basement where he’s now sealed off with seven other survivors of a nuclear blast, Mickey (Michael Biehn) is less than impressed. You’re apt to sympathize: the New Yorkers assembled around him look frightened, the space is tight, and the outside—beyond the door they’ve just slammed shut following a series of horrific explosions—is utterly unknown.
It’s an effectively grim start to Xavier Gens’ increasingly grim psychological thriller, The Divide. Until the attack, Mickey was an apartment building super, and the individuals now looking to him for guidance were tenants. He acts as if he’s prepared to take on the role: “You wanna survive, you listen to me,” he growls, echoing Biehn’s most famous heroic part, as Reese in The Terminator. At that very moment, the lights begin to flash and thunderlike rumbles sound outside, as if to underline that he speaks truth.
But Mickey is not Reese: he’s not noble or gallant. He’s afraid, cynical, and mean. When the child Wendi (Abbey Thickson) begins to whimper that she wants to “go home,” Mickey leans close to tell her she has to stay here, “Because you’re face will melt off and your hair will fall out.” As her mother, Marilyn (Rosanna Arquette), gathers her up and challenges Mickey’s callousness (“She’s a little girl!”), you notice that they’re wearing smudged pink pajamas and robes, suddenly transformed into signs of a most terrible, awful, and never-ending nightmare.
You also notice other tenants, now, just a few minutes into the film, looking doubtful about their supposed leader. The camera turns more than once to the significantly named Eva (Lauren German), soon revealed as the film’s designated moral center. As she quietly evaluates the men around her, they are arranged as they often are in such movie scenarios: each becomes differently invested in maintaining his position among the group, each has a different sort of masculinity to parlay. Before the attacks, Eva’s affianced, apparently, to the French-born Sam (Iván González), whom the other men deride incessantly for his lack of potency, his inclination to negotiate, his fearfulness—in a word, his Frenchness.
This particular tension is indicative of The Divide‘s political and cultural framework, that is, post-9/11 America, filtered through New York. As the group argues about what to do, they’re at once indebted to Mickey, who’s got a stash of canned goods as well as specific ideas about what they should be doing (“Number one rule: no one opens that door until the radiation clears”) and who should be in charge. They also soon learn how he’s come to an immediate conclusion as to who’s to blame: “Of course they’re Arabs,” he pronounces, “We should have wiped them off the fucking map when we had the chance, now it’s probably too fucking late.” Probably.
It’s not too late for other sorts of crusades or judgments. When the group invades Mickey’s sleeping quarters, they find more reasons to fear and despise him (the building’s security guard, Delvin [Courtney B. Vance] finds a ball that was in his apartment, a toy turned abruptly crucially meaningful in the group’s constantly shifting hierarchy). They also discover Mickey’s special investment in 9/11, visible in his chosen décor: an Uncle Sam poster, newspaper headlines, and a US flag. (You also see that Eva sees that he also keeps photos of a wife and young child, the latter with a birthday cake, indicating he’s suffered a loss, though the particulars remain unknown.) As the group becomes increasingly desperate—for food, connections, and a pathetic sense of power in this Lord of the Flies-ian environment—they turn on the bully Mickey, obviously haunted and wandering the basement late at night, the camera distant and low, his ribs sharply shadowed.
As much as the ensemble’s general sentiment turns against Mickey, he’s actually not the point of only or primary “divide.” Still, the energy they put into hating him is unnerving: on finding he keeps a combination safe in his room, the men decide to torture him to get access (unremittingly bitter, Mickey warns, “You’re all gonna die I’ll never give you the combination”). While Sam urges they “get civilized,” Josh (Milo Ventimiglia) and Bobby (Michael Eklund) abuse Mickey mercilessly, their own self-images shifting as they find themselves capable of some very ugly and very calculated brutality.
It’s not a surprise that they turn this newfound capacity against the women. At first, Marilyn gives in: following yet another trauma, she descends into a kind of self-destructive spiral, involving sexual and other abuses initiated by Bobby and then joined in by Josh. Eva resists, finding some meager protection in the form of Josh’s more sympathetic brother Adrien (Ashton Holmes), but the tag-team of Josh and Bobby grows more united and more ruthless. As their bodies shrink into cadaverous extrapolations of their former selves, they shave their heads and peer into a mirror together. They nod, acknowledging and maybe a little awed by their shared extremity: “The same,” says one. “The same,” says the other.
When Eva challenges his violence, Josh doesn’t quite explain, “I did what had to be done.” This seeming statement is The Divide‘s foremost question. What has to be done? To what end? As each individual runs into terrible answers, the film does lapse into clichés—slow motion to show agony, gender confusions to indicate moral collapses, blood splatter dried on weary faces to remind you of prices paid, and a repetitive, strangely sentimental piano soundtrack. For all its generic business, this nightmare knows its sources.