This ongoing experiment in film writing freezes a film at 10, 40, and 70 minutes, and keeps the commentary as close to those frames as possible. This week, I examine The Descent, by Neil Marshall.
The Descent (2005, dir. Neil Marshall)
Preface and a Note on the Plot
This week’s column is a strict constructionist application of the 10/40/70 rules, with severe limits of any discussion beyond the frame, except for the concept of the “final girl” near the end. Context for the 10-minute frame: the women have assembled in the cabin in the Appalachian mountains, as they prepare for their caving adventure.
The sweater has a horizontal pattern, as does the blanket on back of the chair, as do the bookshelves and wall logs to the right.
There is a fire near the middle of the frame, which draws our attention. Later in the film, fire will be very important, as it often is in dark places. One character looks at the fire, one turns away. One seems to be looking at a selection of beer bottles.
CHARACTERS IN MOTION
Each character is in motion, yet frozen in this frame. Character Left seems to be headed for the chair, the warmth of the fire. Character Middle is either in the process of sitting on the couch or standing up. Character Right leans over the bottles, either moving towards them or away.
THE FIGURE ON THE WALL
In the upper left corner, there is something affixed to the wall. What is it? A skull? A coat hanger? Both?
THE BLUE BENEATH THE FIRE
There is something blue beneath the fire. Nearly the same color as the blanket. The character in the striped sweater looks at the blue beneath the fire, not the fire.
In the caverns, much of the light is red. It reminds you of blood. The source of the light is unclear, but you realize that without the light there would be no movie. This is an understood contract between the viewer and the film.
Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) crosses a deep crevice, working her body, grunting. The women on the far side urge her on. She does not fall to her death in this frame.
MINER’S HELMETS WITH LIGHTS
The women may not be wearing, technically speaking, miner’s helmets with lights, but they are wearing something approximate. These lights serve to illuminate the caverns, not only for the women but also for us. In this way, the apparatus used to help make the film (lighting) is not hidden from the viewer, but exposed. There is nothing meta or postmodern about this.
THE DARKNESS BEHIND CHARACTER RIGHT
This darkness is menacing. Anything could be in there. The filmmakers use the created naturalism of the setting as a source of tension.
POINT OF VIEW
We are privileged to a point of view separate from the characters. We are safely on the “other side” of the crevice, on the other side of the camera. Occasionally, the point of view switches to Rebecca, but not in this frame. This is our safety zone, our chance to size up the situation from the comfort of the other side.
Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), fully aware of the crawlers at this point, slowly walks through the cavern. Her light stick casts everything in green and serves as another in-movie prop that serves as a source of light in the cavern.
The light stick is not a weapon and it cannot protect Sara from the crawlers.
FINAL GIRL (inside and outside the frame)
In her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws (1992) Carol J. Clover coined the term “final girl” to refer to the last girl/woman standing in many horror and slasher films that feature a male killer. Typically, the final girl is different from the other girls who die. She typically does not, for instance, indulge in their illicit teenage activities, such as sex and drug use. She is coded as somehow different from the beginning.
But with alternate endings (this movie has them) the final girl is in question today. There is no finality to the final girl. We have instead options, choices, menus, forking paths, settings, customization, alternatives, re-mixes. Finality and closure are authoritarian. Alternatives are democratic. The final girl is only final in one version. The lines between alternate endings and “real” endings are blurred. They are part of a continuum. All the codes are being reversed, undone. Having lost confidence in the authority of closure, of endings, we have survivors who really died, and those killed who really survived.
Because they want it both ways, these films have lost the power to threaten, and to enchant.