Friday, July 3, 2009

Eden Lake (2008, James Watkins)

Eden Lake is one of those disconcerting films that transports you to a very dark mental state; as our heroes, an innocuous, in-love couple on a weekend romantic getaway, are antagonized, the viewer's mind inevitably wanders to what increasingly brutal acts of vengeance they'd wreak in a similar situation.

Steve (Michael Fassbender) and Jenny (Kelly Riley, gorgeous) are off for a weekend of frolicking at a B&B on Eden Lake. The getaway promises at least one surprise - in an early scene, Steve surveys the shiny rock he's purchased for Jenny - but, unfortunately, a lot more are in store. When Steve confronts a group of disruptive teens at the beach, it sets into motion a chain of escalating events that have deadly consequences.

While comparisons abound - John Boorman's classic Deliverance seems to be a bit of a touchstone here, as well as France's Them and Texas Chainsaw Massacre (albeit redone here as the English Countryside Switchblade Fiasco) - Eden Lake is remarkably singular, a film that belies its peaceful, sun-kissed locale to deliver, with stunning veracity, a cautionary tale about conflict, about youth gone wild, about parenting, about society. Simply put, these children - all, as we see near the end, remarkably failed by their parents - are monsters. Ringleader Brett (Jack O'Connell), in particular, is a serial-killer-in-training, a child so monstrous and screwy that, at what must be a ripe old fifteen, his character remains one of the more brutal and intense screen villains in a while, especially in the increasingly emasculated horror genre. His reign of terror is what causes us, the audience, to transport to a particularly dark mental state - with each successive act of brutality, we're left to fantasize, disturbingly, all the devious punishments this child deserves. O'Connell deserves praise for his role - he makes sure that we the audience despise him thoroughly.

This isn't to discredit the efforts of the rest of the cast. Fassbender and Riley, in particular, are great protagonists. They tread a lot more cautiously than many of us like to believe we would - a particular "how would you behave in this situation?" thread on Eden Lake's IMDB message board unearthed a lot of would-be Sly Stallones claiming they'd "go Rambo on their (sic) asses" - but they're remarkably full performances for horror-movie leads. Riley, in particular, impresses as she nears the end - we're meant to question ourselves as we react to certain decisions she makes, and her mixed emotions are nakedly palpable. (Speaking of ends, this one's a doozy - those looking for a traditional Hollywood ending or a disposable final-frame "boo!" to send you squealing into the night are better off seeking out some PG-13 J-horror remake.)

There's a lot of societal unrest at play here, and it unspools slowly, along with the tension. Watkins doesn't necessarily dole out his scares as much as he takes a calculated approach to suspense, stopping to puncture it only periodically. This is a taxing, savage film, but those that would compare it to the "torture porn" of Hostel or the endless Saw sequels clearly missed the point altogether. Complex, unbearably tense, and, occasionally, torturously violent, Eden Lake is a modern gem.

RATING: **** (out of five)