The Descent (2005) Re-Appraisal

It is something of an ongoing (budding) practice here at Cinemaholism to not only take a respected critic up on their recommendation via the films they review—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 test whether the initial reception has changed? Think of it as the meta in film reviews; reviewing my own mental review. Real talk though, the viewing habits of film aficionados manifest in a variety of consumption patterns. You can watch them in marathons of one particular director’s films, by movement, genre, or year of release, etc. Besides it makes the site portfolio that much more dynamic and robust for the time 30 hits per day become the norm. And not that I do a write-up on every single film I see, but having just finished watching the spelunking nightmare that is The Descent I’m amped to put the final word on a one-time personal favorite. Oops, guess that gave away what the verdict was. But I liked The Descent very much in 2006, as it left me with a visceral after-effect that lingered for days. It was a gut-punch of a movie then and still is today. Depending on which ending you saw first, a picture has never spoken a thousand words so resoundingly as its last frame, and luckily for me, I believe I saw that version in both cases. Little things like this, when they tie into the whole piece, do wonders to an otherwise frugally set film.

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But, from the outset, to reduce a film to a superficial denomination like “spelunking flick” is too niche, at best and at worst short changing a fine genre film.. A group of six women—mostly friends of a friend—embark on a caving expedition for this year’s outdoorsy shindig. A lot of personality clash could arise from that alone, and you can imagine the narrative possibilities branching out next much like the cave system the women are about to explore. I found myself squirming as they crawled one after the other through the first tunnel they encountered. It’s a terrifying prospect that involves maneuvering under a rock blocking the tunnel and submerging oneself in the pooling water below it. I wasn’t this claustrophobic during a recent MRI. But group dynamics alone would have any writer salivating at the prospect of etching a colorful ensemble, instead the writer-director tastefully resists such temptations. 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 shortly after. Before the plot even thickens, it is ripe with simmering drama and hints of a backstabbing. Amid glances unscrupulously exchanged, thrown over an unassuming widow’s shoulder, one oblivious to marital infidelity and a friend’s betrayal, it is intimated there could be an antagonist, or a semblance thereof. But aside from Sarah, and two gung-ho, daring climbers in the set, everyone’s on equal footing, though by no means is any character a 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.

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The Descent is surprisingly devoid of flaws in its narrative, and much more clearly now on repeated viewing. First World shenanigans aside, the idea that you have a troupe of mostly attractive twenty-something daredevils using the pretext of an annual outdoors adventure as the pretense for drama is reductive. 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, 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 with 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 bunch, which speaks for the director’s assured handling of its subject matter. Still apart from a stream of water dripping on Juno’s chest, there wasn’t much in the way of sexual imagery. Well… Maybe not, because you can argue that much as their descent into the cave elicits images of burial and last rites, Sarah going batshit mental in a pool of blood evokes menstrual psychosis. Technically, the cinematography is above your standard fare, which makes it effective. 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 capability 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 rock and tunnel formation. It is unrealistic but that was, like the medical counterpart for 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 scenes deep in the bowels of the earth were depicted lighting-wise. To my sheer 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 merely a stand-in for her doubts and paranoia surrounding her late husband’s newly discovered affair. Far fetched? Not as appropriate, fitting juxtaposition, no.

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