Here’s something obvious that I don’t think many people consider: unabashed love for an actor doesn’t always translate to that actor having an easy career. Take Michael Biehn, who can’t sit down for an interview without being asked about Terminator, Aliens or how he almost nabbed a part in Cameron’s Avatar. To be fair, Biehn’s been finding steady work for the last two decades, either in television or with bit parts in horror flicks and the occasional supporting drama role (he packs a short, but sweet punch in the recent Chris Evans medical thriller Puncture). But people still think of him as their ’80s hero.
But his scene-chewing role in The Divide, the new film by Xavier Gens (Frontier(s), Hitman), feels like a calculated move. As Mickey, the psycho super of a New York City apartment building who houses the complex’s tenants after an unknown nuclear blast wipes the city clear, Biehn drops his own atomic bomb…on our nostalgia. His character’s paranoia-induced, manic state opens the door for a maelstrom of cigar-chomping, grizzled fury, and it’s a “hey, look what I can do!” performance in the very best way. Nearly unrecognizable under his Nick-Nolte-mugshot hair do and equally jagged beard, Biehn inhabits the same kind of confidence we saw in his Cameron collaborations, but now, as an older man. It’s a wake up call for any of his diehard fans.
Biehn isn’t the only one reinventing himself with The Divide, a horror sci-fi indebted more to Sartre’s No Exit than Book of Eli. Gens’ had ground to make up, after his last film, the big budget adaptation of the popular video game series Hitman, floundered with both critics and movie-goers. In The Divide, Gens uses his visual prowess to terrorize, taking the audience through a grinder of fallout shelter living conditions, mysterious masked men with a kidnapping mission and the general mental instability that comes with living underground for a few weeks (note: if this ever happens to you, you’ll probably shave off your eyebrows and start tearing through cans Spam like a rabid wolf). The important shift in Gens direction is the emphasis on characters and performance—a tactic that succeeds as far as he can. The script for The Divide is paper thin and the movie uses its assemblage of stock characters as pawns: Josh (Milo Ventimiglia), the angry rebel, Eva (Lauren German), the quiet, beautiful caretaker, Bobby (Michael Eklund), the feeble minded follower, and Delvin (Courtney B. Vance), the reasonable human being who will inevitably suffer at the hands of the stupid). But Gens, through color, production design and some damn fine actors, makes it situation as intense and grueling as it would be in real life. The Divide doens’t strive for realistic scenarios, but on an emotional level, the ensemble feel like real people. Unlike Hitman, which still felt like a video game.
Between Michael Biehn barking his fellow shelter-mates into submission, another familiar face takes a stab at a vulnerable, heartbreaking performance. Rosanna Arquette plays Marilyn, who early on in the film, loses her daughter to a gang of gas-masked invaders. If you didn’t think the apocalypse could get any worse, think again. The incident sends Marilyn into a downward spira—her depression starts with a stint of starvation, then escalates into a transformation from mother to lifeless plaything. She smears lipstick on her face, opens her up for sexual promiscuity, and, eventually, finds herself taped up and mutilated S&M style. In a stronger movie, Marilyn’s complete destruction of self-worth would have more gravity, but Arquette’s daring turn still paints it boldly.
People have a certain preconception of the phrase “indie,” as if low-budget movies that start at film festivals (The Divide premiered at the 2011 SXSW Fest) and eventually make their way to theaters are all for the arthouse crowd. But making a movie on a dime affords filmmakers and actors, ones with focus on quiet dramas or ones with blockbuster/genre sensbilities, the advantage of stepping out of the box. A playground. The Divide isn’t a perfect movie, but it gives three creative minds, Biehn, Gens and Arquette, the chance to do something different and challenging. It’s not easy to escape your own legacy, but taking a chance with a movie like The Divide never hurts.