It is something of an ongoing (i.e., budding) practice here at Cinemaholism to not only take a respected critic up on their recommendation via films they reviewed—usually favorably—but to attempt the same. And what better way to uphold tradition than keeping a focus on films I’d seen some time back to confirm whether first impressions have changed? Think of it as the meta in film reviews; reviewing my own mental review. Having just finished watching the spelunking nightmare that is The Descent, I’m amped to put the final word out on an all-time personal favorite. And my, oh my, oh my. Is this a gut punch or is this a gut punch? It’s very seldom for my reaction to a film to withstand the time gap between the first and second viewings and remain intact the way it has with The Descent. It speaks to its visceral impact that it left me with the same feeling despite the accumulation of life experiences and English proficiency in those ten years since. There are no clever twists to disseminate through heavy slang nor the complex motivations—outside of the protagonist’s response to infidelity, betrayal and grief—that ten more years of wisdom would prove requisite for full appreciation. Simply the journey of six women into the bowels of the earth below Hicksville, VA and a cave system they all thought was known. All but one character, who more or less serves as the antagonist. I think the film really sells the first instigating incident in discovering they were lead to an unexplored system without stretching its credibility. That midway realization, plus a tunnel collapse blocking their path and announcing a point of no return, do not require a suspension of disbelief to work. By the time the audience is required to suspend their disbelief—when the crawlers are introduced—the sheer isolation, claustrophobia, and immense stress have firmly set in and absorbed the audience. The creatures might as well have been there as an extension of the fantastical element of a cavernous space lit in different palettes like red flares, night-vision greens and pitch black. The terrestrial and celestial converge in identical imagery of precipitous chasms and rugged subterranean environs. But alongside the drama, conflict, grief and survival I’ve found images of its cramped crawls, bottomless chasms and cutaway views of the tunnel in the end to be enduring. I found myself wincing (and squirming even) as they crawled in single file through the first tunnel they encountered; it was a terrifying proposition that involves maneuvering under a rock blocking the narrow crawl and through the pooling water underneath it.
For this year’s outdoorsy shindig, this group of mutual friends embarks on a caving expedition in Appalachia. Plenty of personality clash could arise here that one imagines the narrative possibilities branching out like the underground tunnels lying beneath. Though group dynamics would have many salivating at the prospect of etching a colorful ensemble, as writer-director, Neil Marshall resists such temptations focusing instead on the frenetic descent into the abyssal depths both within and underneath. It is clear who the protagonist is—Sarah—from an epilogue of the previous year’s whitewater rafting trip. Her husband and daughter are killed in a head-on collision immediately afterwards. Before the plot even thickens, it is ripe with simmering drama and hints of a backstabbing. Amid amorous glances unscrupulously exchanged, thrown over an unassuming wife’s shoulder, it is intimated there may be an antagonist. But aside from Sarah, and two gung-ho, daring climbers in the set, everyone’s on equal footing without anyone presented as the filler archetype. We are treated to a meet-and-greet in a follow-up scene but nothing to make you remember every name thereafter. Really, it’s more the story of an alpha and five betas of potentially straggler tendencies when it is also Sarah’s episode coping with grief. Structurally, it’s a solid premise going forward when you take into account the layer of its scant, early exposition and minimalist concept. It works on a multitude of points as it doubles down on more than one level of complexity.
The Descent is surprisingly devoid of narrative flaws, most definitely now on repeated viewing. First World shenanigans aside, the idea that a troupe of attractive twenty-something daredevils using the pretext of an annual outdoors adventure as the pretense for drama is barren. On one level, there was always going to be the element of woman-versus-nature. The cave system, as everyone won’t learn until it’s too late, is uncharted territory even for the National Parks Service, so any notion of eventual rescue is categorically dashed. Their whereabouts, if divulged to an official body, are somewhere else altogether. Evidently, dehydration, aural-visual deterioration, hallucinations, and disorientation are some of the perils you’re exposed to in the depths. Add the history of wanton, devil-may-care attitude and some bad blood and you’ve got a pretty combustible formula as we learn Juno was fucking Sarah’s husband at one point. And on that note, fuck the Bechdel test, because in a story featuring a wrongful death and festering with mistrust, I’m supposed to dock the film some points because some man was at the epicenter of what essentially adds up to nothing but one woman’s unhinged ego trip? In any case, I found myself unusually distracted from administering what feminists call the male gaze in a cast of entirely fuckable chicks, which speaks for the director’s command of the material. Still, apart from a stream of water dripping on Juno’s decolletage, like a soda commercial, there wasn’t much in the way of sexual imagery. Unless, their descent into the cave ought to elicit burial and last rites, then maybe Sarah going full-on feral mode in a pool of blood evokes menstrual psychosis? Without the need to dazzle, the cinematography is still memorable. It wasn’t going to be an easy outing to simulate what navigating the crushing confines of subterranean passages truly appeared like, nor extensively palatable to the eye, but when required, they answered the call. In other areas a recorder cam is used for its infrared functionality, giving off a found footage vibe within real-time footage. Meta again. In yet another example of variety, they shot a scene in what resembles a cross-section of the rock formation. It is unrealistic but that was, much like the medical counterpart with internal organs, for purely illustrative purposes. But my beef was with a dubious deployment in some parts which I found inexcusable. At first we go from natural lighting to oversaturated hues before the descent (accident aftermath, and possibly for some dream sequences?) to a series of neon-lit scenes and no lighting afterwards. While impressive to the onlooker, there were a few egregious errors in how the lighting deep underground was depicted. To my annoyance, we have the actors frantically shoulder-checking in the middle of an action-packed bit to suddenly realize they’re trying to get their bearings right in a fully-lit alcove! It’s a jarring sequence, among a few more, that keep The Descent from resolutely scaling genre heights, because on a deeper level, it serves as one giant metaphor for Sarah’s grief and post traumatic stress, and the environment’s grueling effects are now merely a stand-in for her doubts and paranoia following the discovery of her late husband’s affair.