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 by keeping a focus on films I’d seen some time back to discover whether the 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 freaks allow for 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 compelling in its content for the time 30 hits per day comes. Haha. Not that I do a write-up on every single film I see, but having just gotten finished watching the spelunking nightmare The Descent I’m amped to put the final word on a one-time personal favorite. Oops, guess that gave away which way the verdict is headed. But I liked The Descent very much in 2006, as it left me with a visceral after-effect. 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 genre despite it being a horror-thriller. A group of six women, not all friends, embark on a caving expedition for this year’s outdoorsy shindig. A lot of clashing could arise from that alone, and you can imagine the narrative possibilities branching out much like the cave system they’re yet to discover. See? Not so simple after all. And I found myself squirming when they, one by one, crawled through the first hole they saw. It’s a terrifying prospect that involves maneuvering under a rock blocking the tunnel and submerging oneself in the puddle 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 last year’s white water rafting trip. Her husband and daughter are killed in a head-on collision shortly after. Before the plot even thickens it is readily ripened with simmering drama and a trace of backstabbing. Amid glances unscrupulously exchanged, thrown over an unassuming wife’s shoulder, one too 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 anyone 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 narrative flaws, 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 springboard to the film’s core conflict is reductive. On one level, there was always going to be some woman-versus-nature. Until it’s too late, the cave system everyone will learn is uncharted territory even for the National Parks Service, so any notion of eventual rescue is categorically eliminated. Their whereabouts, if they’ve been divulged to an official party, are somewhere else altogether. Reportedly, dehydration, aural-visual deterioration, hallucinations, and disorientation are some of the perils you’re exposed to in the depths. Who knew? Coupled with a history of wanton, devil-may-care attitude and some bad history and you’ve got yourself a pretty combustible formula because as for the woman-against-woman part, it turns out Juno was fucking Sarah’s husband at one point. And just as it was skillfully left to reveal itself it was such alluded to tangentially. And on that note, fuck the Bechdel test and its adherents too, because in a story with a wrongful death, and festering with mistrust, I’m supposed to take the film down a notch 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 burials 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 exceptional if you’re inclined to be lenient or generous. It wasn’t going to be an easy outing to simulate what navigating the crushing confines of subterranean passages looked 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 capabilities giving a found footage within real-time footage feel. Meta again. In yet another example of variety, they shot in what resembles a cross section of rock and tunnel formation. It is unrealistic but, like the medical counterpart for internal organs, for purely illustrative purposes. But my beef was with a dubious deployment  in some parts, and was it 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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