There have been many attempts at a genre film that emulates a very real feeling of horror that may happen in real life. I've seen quite a good number of them, some are decent, some are great but most failed to impress. Writer and director James Watkins' "Eden Lake" may have the usual clichés of horror suspense thrillers, the main premise offers nothing new, but what makes it very different is the fact that it carries a lot of effective humanity in its proceedings, that whatever it may lack in originality, the journey itself is rewarding--proves once again that true terror may just be out there.
Steve and Jenny (Michael Fassbender and Kelly Reilly respectively) is a couple very much in love. They decide to spend the weekend in the wilderness to have some quality time, and unknown to Jenny, Steve plans on proposing. Their time together is broken up when they ran across a group of aggressive of local kids. Rowdiness turns to rage as the teenagers terrorize the couple in unimaginable ways and the weekend outing becomes a fight for survival.
I wasn't kidding when I said that the film's set up is full of cliché. At first impression, I was ready to tell myself that the film was just another thriller until I saw just how the direction slowly unfolded. Sure, there were some cheap scares and some dumb behavior in the part of the protagonists that I didn't exactly buy into in the beginning, but thankfully the script abandons the flaws. What really got me into the film is the fact that even though there is very minor character development in the beginning, you get to know Steve and Jenny through their horrific experiences. Other films such as "Them" and "The Strangers" tried but failed to make the audience "feel" for the characters' predicaments, to put them behind the eyes of the leads--this film does so very effectively because it carried a lot of emotional content.
The characters have their own feelings. Even the teenagers, despite their horrific deeds, aren't one-dimensional. These kids have emotions and their characteristics are displayed when they disagree, argue and have second thoughts. Brett (Jack O'Connell) is the group's leader and one may wonder as to how a young man such as this would be so without conscience. There is a subtle hint at abuse when Steve stumbled on their home and especially during the final act. The other members of the group offer some guilt and reluctance, but they were just so caught up in the moment or they were scared of Brett or for themselves.
I suppose the situation itself had driven the characters into such actions. I loved the way the director set everything up, it seemed as if unintentional reactions, dark coincidence and bad decisions enforced with rage were all the cause of the terrifying experience for Steve and Jenny. These teenagers are very angry, well, maybe two of them served as some light at the end of the tunnel, but the situation may have scared both the victims and the hunters. The film is definitely an emotional affair that I wouldn't really call this a 100% horror film, but more of a horrifying drama. There is some blood and very little gore, and it doesn't depend on those elements, but focuses more on the situation itself--which makes it more an emotional horror film, with a lot of visceral punch.
The performances are quite good, although Kelly Reilly may have stolen the show. Reilly is so convincing on the anger, fear and her reactions that I was genuinely touched by her plight. Steve's "proposal" adds some feeling of sympathy, but it doesn't end there. The teenagers were also very meshed together and managed to show a lot of humanity despite their unbecoming behavior, when I say humanity, I didn't mean the pleasant side--I meant the dark side.
The film's cinematography is very good and while all these things happen in a huge wooden area, it gives a feeling of claustrophobia and helplessness. The way the camera worked was quite impressive; making simple perspective views become a feeling of helplessness, close-ups to achieve emotion and pain. I was quite happy with the direction, but the film isn't perfect. The hunt seemed to have taken place in two days and there are some elements that I did find unconvincing such as when Jenny stayed put in the woods the first night instead of going for help and some scenes were a little heavy-handed.
Despite some flaws, "Eden Lake" does a LOT more things right than wrong. The plot while simple was an emotional roller-coaster, and I was very happy that the antagonists weren't "cardboard" genre characters and that they acted very human, however, brutal their actions were. The film's main strength is its humanity and the realistic approach to human terror. It also has a surprising element in the final act that is very bleak and sad (Reminded me of the South Korean thriller "The Chaser") and I applaud the writer in avoiding a perfunctory ending. It wasn't so much as surprising, but it just leaves a very sad and disturbing feeling behind. The film's ending is an expression of irony and pure wicked coincidental chance. Full of humanity and bleakness, "Eden Lake" delivers.
Highly Recommended! [4 ½ Stars]
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