Sunday, October 3, 2010

THE DESCENT: Should We Follow the Over Confident?

Writer/Director: Neil Marshall (2005)

In talking with a consulting client and friend on the West Coast about horror films, we asked ourselves why the innocent die in some popular horror films.  I decided to take a look at DESCENT—Neil Marshall's 2005 story about "Six Chicks with Picks" (axes, that is). It was made in the UK for about $5.5MM and did $26MM in the US and $57MM worldwide.

The movie is about 94 minutes if you exclude the opening and closing credits. This would mean a Moment of Grace (the mid point) is at 47.7 minutes, and the two act breaks at about 24 min and 71 minutes, if ideally structured.


As I discuss below the Act 1/2 breaks occurs about 36 minutes, the group Moment of Grace (MOG) does occur exactly at 47  minutes, and the Act 2/3 break plus the MOG for the protagonist, occurs at about 75 minutes. (Below, when mentioning the structure of the turning points, that is the timing of events in the story, I refer both to minutes or pages as if they were equivalent. In reality they are not, but page counts is all a writer has to work with -- if he formats the pages correctly, and few writers do -- and minutes are all an editor has to work with.)

The story goes like this: After a white-water rafting trip for three women, a car accident kills the husband and daughter of one of the women, Sarah. A year later, to help Sarah get control of her life again and get over her nightmares and fears, her friends, two from the white water rafting trip, take her on a caving expedition in Kentucky. But the journey goes terribly wrong when they're pursued by a strange breed of predator. The question for the horror critic becomes: Why do these women all die in the cave, since they seem to be innocent of any sin?

I watched the original unrated uncut version (DVD) of THE DESCENT this afternoon and evening, and then a couple of the featurettes. [It takes me a long time to watch these things because I'm stopping every two minutes to take notes and timings. You do not want to go to the movies with me, I'm always yelling at the projectionist to stop the film for a few. Audiences hate me. I once got kicked out of a theater for using the light of my iPhone to take notes.]


In the opening scene three women (Sarah, Beth and Juno) are white water rafting.
 Sarah's husband and young daughter are on the riverbank watching the women shoot the rapids. As the boat nears shore in a quiet part of the river, Sarah playfully uses her hand tool (the oar) to playfully shove an exhilarated Juno backwards into the water. Sarah's use of the oar on Juno is a strong metaphor for what's going on "under the surface," and it also foreshadows the end. As Sarah and Beth bring the rubber inflatable to shore and get out, the camera follows Paul (Sarah's husband) as he helps Juno out of the water with the same oar, helps her off with her helmet, then abruptly leaves Juno to get his daughter and Sarah back to the hotel because it's cold. But the camera holds on Juno as she looks after Paul, longingly.

Minutes later as Sarah, Paul, and their daughter drive back to the hotel Sarah turns to Paul and asks him, "What's wrong, you seem distant." Paul turns to Sarah and responds, "No, I'm fine." Of course he's not fine, he's lying, and at that instant (since he's not looking at the road, and Sarah is looking at Paul) he crosses the "center line" by carelessly steering the car. He had already crossed the line in his relationship with Sarah that was intent on keeping them safe. But now, the metaphor speaks and he hits another car head on, and debris from the crash stabs him through the head (his error was mental). Later Sarah will realize that she's been stabbed in the heart, not with cupid's arrow but with deceitful egos. This is a tragedy (horror) remember.

It is also clear by various dialogue and shots in later cave scenes that Juno was having an affair with Paul. Had not the affair occurred, Paul would not have been distant and turned away to face Sarah when she asked why he was acting distant, and if he had not turned away from the road there would have been no accident and Paul and their daughter would still be alive.

So, there is some underlying sin that gets the story going. Note, first, that the affair is a choice by the egos of Paul and Juno that claim: "We are above natural law."

Also note that the frightful cave journey is a metaphor for the frightful life that Sarah has been living over the past year.

Now, the affair adds to what we discover next.


On the way to the cave, Rebecca, who is trying to watch over everyone (she acts as the "mother hen" but not the leader of the group) warns everyone on page 19:
"Rule #1 Follow a flight plan and stick to it.
Rule #2 Don't go wandering off."

Ah! Whenever you hear something like that in dialogue, write it down. It will play a significant role in the story. I wrote it down, and I was rewarded. My assumption, since this was horror, was that the plan would not be followed. But it was worse than not following the plan.

Sure enough, at 36 minutes (the Act 1/2 break), just after a passage-way collapses and momentarily traps Sarah, the women discover that Juno has not taken them to Boreham Caverns for which Beth had filed the "flight plan" with the park system. Juno didn't take them to Boreham Caverns because Boreham Caverns is a tourist trap. Instead she's taken them to this unnamed, unexplored, unmarked cave. She reasons (egotistically) that they can be the first ones through it, and name if after Sarah, who the whole trip is for -- to help Sarah get over the depression of the accident. And since this isn't Boreham Caverns NO PLAN WAS EVER FILED. Thus, from the get-go, Juno decided NOT to follow the plan that was filed (violating Rule #1), and deceitfully wanders off (violating Rule #2) with all her friends following her.

Then, there is this line thrown at Juno when the women discover this deceit:  "This isn't caving. This is an ego trip." ...which is a partial articulation of the moral premise.


Now the Moral Premise Statement (MPS) can be articulated like this. Note that there are two possible endings:

Feeding an inflated ego leads to danger; but
Practicing humility leads to safety.

Feeding an inflated ego leads to danger; but
Following people with inflated egos leads to death.
In search for the mean virtue, we will see Sarah travel the whole arch, from the vice and the left, to the virtue in the middle, to the vice at the right. 
Lack of Self-Confidence -- Humbly Knowing Self -- Inflated Self Confidence


Now, there is one woman that is more of an egomaniac that Juno, and that's the base jumper, Holly, who Juno has brought along as someone more expert than any of the women. Holly's expertise, however, extends to her expert arrogance, which is evident from the beginning when Juno keeps warning her to tone it down. Holy doesn't want to do this cave because it's beneath her level of skill and adventure experience. The arrogance is thick and the cave is dangerous. Fitting.

But it is Holly that gets in trouble first with a panic attack, which leads to a broken leg, which leads her to being the first that gets dragged off by a crawler monster and eaten alive. (MP reinforced.)

Then, in the scene where Juno tries to save Holly and Juno uses her pick axe to attack a couple of crawlers, Juno accidentally puts the pointy end of the axe through Beth's neck. (It's dark and scary you understand, so these things happen.) So fearful is Juno of this turn of events that she leaves Beth bleeding on the cave floor to die, even though Beth begs her not to leave her.


Much later when Sarah comes across the dying woman, Beth tells Sarah to stay away from Juno because Juno did this bloody thing and then left Beth to die. As proof of this Sarah finds Juno's necklace that Beth had ripped off Juno's neck. Beth then says to Sarah: "It was from Paul". And Sarah wipes away the blood from it, as if wiping away the blood of Paul's accident to look beneath it, and beneath the reason for the blood that day, and she sees the adage that Paul always lived by -- "Love Every Day."  We know this because Sarah had casually stated the adage earlier in the movie. Of course, the seditious meaning is now clear -- Paul was following his own advice but the object of his love every day was not Sarah, but Juno. Sarah says, "Oh, no." followed by Beth's "Sorry" thus revealing to Sarah (what she probably suspected) that her best friend was sleeping with her husband. (There are other lines that reinforce this truth before this moment of grace for Sarah, which comes at 75 minutes into the movie, which is not the mid-point but rather the Act 2/3 break. It is this near death experience, and loss of a love (both Beth and Paul), and what happens next that confirms this change in Sarah's disposition.

Beth's revelation to Sarah about Paul and Juno's relationship sets up the showdown with Juno at movie's end. But on page 75, Sarah chooses the tragic storyline when Beth asks Sarah to kill her before the crawler monsters eat her alive. Sarah compiles with a big rock at 76:50 (All is lost, end of Act 2). That action completes Sarah's arc from being humbly afraid to make decisions on her own. Sarah is on a downward spiral — forget the quaint idea of a turning point. Now, it is only a matter of time before Sarah allows ego to advance beyond a mercy killing (2nd degree murder) and takes revenge on Juno by pick axing Juno's leg and leaving her to be eaten alive by the crawlers on page 89 (1st degree murder).


There are several hints given to Sarah that foreshadow the above MOG. On page 37, when Juno says, to the whole group: "You know what Beth? We all lost something in that crash." And then on page 42 Sarah asks Juno, "Was this (the cave trip) about, you or me?" and Juno replies, "It's about us." (Both exchanges indicate the loss of one vertex of a love triangle. This later line on page 42, is close to the midpoint (on page 47), but it does not result in a change in motivation by Sarah, our protagonist. The change doesn't become evident until she stares down the crawler at close range with only a small video camera between them, makes a torch, and then kills Beth.

By the way, the first crawler monster makes its appearance at 47 minutes. Certainly, if we take all six of the women as co-protagonists, then the MOG is exactly in the middle of the movie. Here the women's motivations change dramatically from getting out of the cave to surviving the crawlers.


But I think the movie is really about Sarah, as she has the dramatic arc, and she's the one with a true physical goal (to rid herself of nightmares and live with hope of seeing her daughter). The ending I saw (on the Unrated Cut DVD) allowed Sarah to actually attain her goal, in an horrific sense. The last image is of her kneeling on the cave floor, trapped there forever no doubt, looking at the burning torch, and thinking she's with her daughter at her birthday party, and the candles burning bright. As much as there can be happiness at the end of a horror movie, this is it. What she considered a nightmare before, is now a sweet dream.


All of the big moral decisions in this movie are about ego trips (figuratively and literally). Paul and Juno's infidelity is about stroking their own egos. June continues to think she's above common sense, and thus arranges for amateur spelunkers to explore an unknown, unnamed cave for which there is no guidebook. She purposely leaves behind a cave's guide book, because she deceitfully knows these are caves without a guidebook. She tells the group, "What's the point. We've all said, if there's no risk what's the point."  And reality hits the women — THERE IS NO GUIDE BOOK FOR THIS CAVE. (Metaphorically they are entering a life event without a guidebook, and in terms of their personal relationships they've thrown away the moral guidebook of natural law.)

In these ways June believes she is above moral laws and thus ignores the natural consequences of jealousy, bitterness, and revenge. In the end Juno's affair (the result of ego and ignoring metaphoric guidebooks) kills her and Paul. In both the physical journey (the cave) the wisdom of using a guidebook has been left behind,  and in the psychological/ moral journey involving the affair and it's consequences, the natural law guidebook about what is right and wrong is also left behind. Indeed, Juno never asks forgiveness of Sarah or the group for her ego driven indiscretions. She defends her decision to take them into this uncharted cavern, and the only thing she says she's sorry for to Sarah is leaving too soon after the accident. Even when the truth comes out about the affair, there is no humility or asking for forgiveness. The spiraling descent into the physical cave metaphors the spiraling descent into immorality and justification, that Juno has embraced a year before.


The irony of the tragedy is this: In the end, when only Sarah and Juno are left alive and it has just been made clear that they need each other to survive, they choose instead to stand alone without their friend. Juno might not have been able to climb up to the last landing had Sarah not suddenly appeared and grabbed her wrist and hauled her to safety; and Sarah would not have survived a moment later without Juno's help to fight off and kill a horde of crawlers. Ironically both women rely on their inflated egos and not humility at this fateful final moment of grace. Although they have just proven the need for each other if they are to survive this ordeal, they choose, again, the dark side of the moral premise. Juno doesn't humbly ask for forgiveness of her friend, and Sarah's bitterness rises to new heights and in a fateful act of revenge drives her pick into Juno's leg and leaves her behind to be eaten alive. No mercy killing here.

It might be said that Juno is the antagonist in the movie. And it is in the antagonist's behavior that we see the epitome of the vice that haunts the protagonist. Indeed, it is Juno's gross arrogance and inflated pride/ego that possesses Sarah.

Finally, you'll also notice that every time the women get in trouble (because of Juno) Juno rises to leadership and fearlessly leads the group deeper into the cave (and closer to death). Ironically they have just said to Juno: "We all trusted you. You told me this was going to be good for Sarah." (But you deceived us.) Common sense here would have said "We're going to choose a new leader, we can't follow you any longer." But they don't do that. They instead follow Juno to their death. Some humility on their part, and a demonstrative lack of trust in Juno, might have saved their lives. But we'll never know how that could have happened because THAT movie has not been made...yet.

Now, while I may be stretching the argument here to come up with how a true moral premise in this movie might be shoehorned into understanding, it is still true that often in redemptive stories the hero dies. While that sounds like suffering (and it is) on the part of the protagonist, it is also true that true heroes die to sacrifice their lives for the greater good. Thus the hero sacrifices for the redemption of the larger group.  BRAVEHEART and THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST are two good examples, but there are many others.

So, looking at THE DESCENT, if we assume for a moment that Sarah and Juno have death rightly coming to them, what common good comes out of Beth, Rebecca, Sam, and Holly's death? My West Coast client/friend had the answer. He wrote and said (I'm paraphrasing): "We, in the audience benefit from their death. We are the common good. We have learned that we shouldn't hang around with foolish, egomaniacs. Bad things will happen."

Yes, movies are simulations designed to teach us how to better live our lives. DON'T FOLLOW EGOMANIACS AROUND. It'll kill you.


Anonymous said...

Hmmm... I read this one differently when I saw it quite some time ago. I thought the cave was a metaphor for the womb -- with the creatures representing distorted fetuses. Somewhat of a feminist style rejection of traditional roles (Juno being the "mother goddess" of women, marriage and children)-- and the consequences of doing so. These women don't scream and run into their boyfriends'/husbands' arms; they're tough chicks who don't need men to go on an extreme spelunking adventure. They seem to be fighting off being barefoot and pregnant -- killing baby monsters rather than having babies.

Stan Williams said...

That definately seems like a valid reading; don't think it conflicts with the above moral premise at all...but may enhance the egotist reading.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to mention that at the start of sins and metaphors it is not Sarah who pushes Juno into the water with her oar, but actually Beth
But this helped me out so thanks :)