Friday, October 06, 2017

Savage Friday: Eden Lake (2008)

On my return to “Savage Fridays,” I have selected a film recommended to me by two friends, 2008’s harrowing British entry: Eden Lake.

Eden Lake is incredibly gory, and extremely disturbing in its social implications.

The film posits out-an-out class warfare (middle vs lower class) in the context of what Conservative critics once called “Broken Britain,” circa 2007 – 2010. Accordingly, the film reflects a schism between the nation’s professionals or elites (represented by the protagonists) and the lower class (represented by the antagonists). In the film, the lower class is portrayed as ignorant, violent, and emotionally-stunted.

Of equal importance, perhaps, the film asks it hero, a school teacher named Jenny, to commit extreme personal violence against, essentially, a child, that most of us would consider unthinkable.  Jenny’s journey in the film takes her from the comment “They’re just children!” to the absolute necessity of slitting one child’s throat with a shard of broken glass. After committing this crime, she must hide in a bin of garbage and feces, an appropriate visual reminder of her descent to the very bowels of human existence.

The violence in Eden Lake is gut-wrenching indeed, but it is Jenny’s decision, finally, to murder this particular individual, that lingers in the memory long after the movie has ended. That act, from a custodian of children, no less, implies that no meaningful accord can be reached between the elite and the every-man, and that more violence is destined to occur.

The first battle of this new war is fought, ironically, at a place called “Eden,” a place of great and abundant natural beauty.

Eden Lake is savage indeed, but in keeping with this genre, there is purpose and meaning behind all the violence.

“I’m not going to be bullied away by a bunch of twelve year olds.”

A young, professional couple -- Steve (Michael Fassbender) and Jenny (Kelly Reilly) -- decide to go away for a romantic weekend. They plan to take a relaxing visit to Slapton Quarry, which will soon be the site of an affluent gated community: Eden Lake.

When they get there, however, the couple’s planned idyllic weekend is interrupted by brazen, loud teenagers who ogle Jenny in her bathing suit, and who won’t keep their vicious dog away from them.

These “little terrors” come by it honestly. The whole nearby town is populated by uncouth, rough customers who refuse to be accountable for the actions of their offspring.

After a confrontation with the teens, the teens strike back against Steve and Jenny. They steal the couple’s car. When Steve tries to get it back, another confrontation descends to violence, and all-out war begins. 

The adult couple is captured, tortured and repeatedly stabbed by the children, but Jenny makes a brave escape attempt, only to learn that in this town, the parents look after their own.

“We look after our own around here.”

As I often write -- both here and in my books -- context is vitally important when considering any film, but especially a horror film. 

In this case, Eden Lake concerns an educated, affluent, “high-tech, high-touch” couple from the city going out to the country and encountering ignorant, ill-mannered “working” people. This dynamic knowingly captures a facet of what -- beginning in the latter half of the first decade of the 21st century -- was known as “Broken Britain.”

There are two things to understand about “Broken Britain.”

The first is that this phrase is a political slogan, popularized by the Conservative Party, and endlessly repeated by a biased echo chamber (in the form of several tabloid newspapers). 

The other thing to understand is that the phrase “Broken Britain” is all about social disintegration.

It was reported in 2009, for instance, in The Independent, that the UK boasts the highest teenage pregnancy rate in all of Western Europe. What this statistic doesn’t report, however, is the fact the pregnancy rate at this point, while high, was continuing the trend of going down.

Similarly, violent crime rates were reported as high in 2009, despite the fact that they too were trending down. In fact, in 2009, the murder rate in the UK was actually down 14% in just one year, according to The Guardian, in March of 2010 (“Is Britain Broken?”)

And this, my friends, is why “data” is only valuable when accompanied by an overarching narrative.

Clearly, the Conservative Party found the narrative it sought -- the breakdown of the social order in Britain -- a “fact” supported by statistics involving crime, gang membership, broken families, and teenage pregnancy.  It was a dramatic failure of the Labour Party not to offer the competing narrative: the fact that trends were showing progress in all these social ills.

So why did these facts about Broken Britain “feel” so right, so true, to so many who read the news?  In one instance, because of social media, surely, and its impact. In the age of the 24 hour news cycle, and the Internet, every single crime seems to be reported widely, even if you step back and see that violent crime is trending down, and has been since the late 1980’s.

But let’s go with the reporting. It was in the news, everywhere, that Britain was broken, and failing. (At least until Dave Cameron was elected PM, and it was no longer necessary for the Conservative Party to press the point).

One other key data point to consider is that there was and remains a major health inequity that exists in Britain, and the United States for that matter. Life expectancy is much lower among those living in poverty, an “excluded” population, essentially. Broken Britain became, finally, the push for Brexit, the resentment of the poor and uneducated towards the “elites” who were not helping them overcome a “social recession,” or even grappling with a “sense of moral decay,” as Cameron phrased it.

Eden Lake picks up on this terror of increasing division and distrust between those who have, and those who have not.  This fact puts it squarely in the tradition of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977), which pitted a middle-class “white bread” family against a desperate, cannibal family, in the Nevada desert. Some people term this new iteration of movie class warfare “hoodie horror,” because the rich and affluent characters clearly fear encounters with those outside multi-cultural cities, who lack the same education and world view that they have adopted.

Leave the big city, essentially, and you expose yourself to the ignorant, dangerous masses, who would as soon kill you as help you. 

And indeed, this is a Savage Cinema precept as well, going back to Easy Rider (1969), and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974).  

Take one wrong turn, and your life is in jeopardy.

Steve and Jenny find this out the hard way in Eden Lake. They encounter a “gang” of children who, apparently, haven’t been properly raised by their blue collar parents. One parent, who works at a restaurant, refuses to hear anything negative about her child.  Another parent knows full well all about his child’s murderous impulses, but still finds defending the child (and committing murder himself…) preferable to siding with the affluent elite.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Eden Lake involves the way that Steve negotiates what it means, in this new world, to be masculine. He can’t very well look like a wimp in front of his wife-to-be, can he? To prove he is masculine, he must confront the children he knows are dangerous.  

However, to battle children is also to acknowledge, intriguingly, that he is not in control; not the adult male he has been groomed to be. Steve finds himself in a no-win situation, and he simply can’t cope with it. The teens take turns stabbing him and beating him. I can’t help but wonder if Steve’s dilemma is a recognition of how difficult it is, at present, to negotiate masculinity in technological, egalitarian modernity.

Jenny is a school teacher, and therefore knows a thing or two about uncooperative students, and yet, she is also hamstrung by her sense of compassion for them. She loves children, otherwise she wouldn’t be a teacher in the first place.

Now she is put in a position to murder them?  

Yet she adjusts.  The implication here is that Jenny -- both as a woman and a teacher -- is able to better able to negotiate the threats. At the very least, she lives longer.

Jenny and Steve are largely outmatched, almost from their first encounter, because the children they encounter have learned too well from their anti-social parents.

They don’t respect authority.

They don’t respect the law.

They have been nourished, it seems, on a diet of contempt and resentment for anyone “outside” their community.  The leader of the gang uses his cell phone -- and video evidence -- to blackmail the others into taking their turns at stabbing Steve. This leader, and the other children, are worldlier, in a sense than Steve and Jenny are, because they have no compunction about committing violence, or protecting themselves. 

Again, they learned this from their parents; the “have nots.”  Specifically, they have learned that authority protects the elite, not the poor.  So they must protect themselves.

Jenny does everything she can to save Steve, after a gruesome, sustained torture sequence that reminded me, a bit of the “piss your pants” sequence in The Last House on the Left, but she finally comes to the same realization as that aforementioned “white bread” family in The Hills Have Eyes: this is a battle for survival, and there can be only one victor. 

The difference, we can assess, is that after Jenny commits murder, she is clearly bothered by it. She is clearly haunted by the fact that she has taken the life of a child. The leader of the gang, by contrast, shows no such remorse. At the end, he wipes it from his memory, literally, by pressing “delete” on his cell-phone.  He destroys all the evidence instantly, and there is no indication that his conscience will ever revisit his crimes. 

The important thing?

He’s gotten away with something. He got one past the elite. Past the police. He eked out a victory in a world that seems tailor-made to deny him any victories, economic, or social.

I would submit that Eden Lake stages its battles between the haves and have-nots in gorgeous, compelling, and suspenseful fashion. My only reservations about the film involve the fact that the elites are fully humanized as characters whilst the every-people are treated much-less three-dimensionally.

The film panders to the belief, among the elite, that people who have failed economically or socially are not fully human, or possess less-developed consciences. Steve and Jenny, by contrast, are given humanizing touches that we recognize. We know they are engaged, and want to be married. We know about her job.  They have goals and dreams.  We don’t know the goals and dreams of the locals.

Again, this complaint can be easily dismissed by considering the history of the genre, and the examples I’ve name-checked already in the review.  The murderers of Deliverance, Straw Dogs, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes are also not treated with much depth. They are, instead, avatars, of terror.  They are the uneducated, socially-maladroit “savages” who threaten the representatives of civilization that are so unlucky as to enter their terrain. Even the brilliant Chain Saw certainly plays into -- or panders to -- Southern stereotypes, so Eden Lake is not on terribly shaky footing.  I suppose I just wish the “villains” were humanized a bit more.

Of course, perhaps the movie is cleverer than I give it credit for. In Deliverance, the violent locals were losing their home, essentially to the march of progress; the rerouting of a river, and the sinking, essentially of a whole valley. Civilization had passed them by, and in their culture’s last hours, they got away with murder. Their crimes were a las desperate howl of existence, in a sense.

Consider Eden Lake’s similar set up. Here, a quarry -- the location where the locals work -- is being transformed into an “Eden” for the elites, a gated community for the wealthy. The every-person once poured his or her blood, sweat or tears into the quarry for living. Now, that same place is destined to become a playground for the affluent.

The right thing to do isn’t commit murder of course, but perhaps in the very set-up of the film, the makers of Eden Lake have reminded us that people become desperate when their home is taken away, and gifted to those who already seem to be the beneficiaries of a lot of good luck.

Or is it privilege?

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