Judge Adam Arseneau has a headache.
Face your fears.
A twisting psychological thriller, The Broken is the most esoteric and head-scratching offering among Lionsgate's After Dark Horrorfest III "8 Films To Die For" this year, going for a more cerebral, creeping horror vibe than the standard axe murderer and scantily clad teens. Ponderous, confusing, and melancholy, it is a Kafka-esque nightmare of coincidences, paranoia, and slow descents into madness.
Facts of the Case
On a busy street in London, successful radiologist Gina McVey (Lena Headey, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles), notices a car very similar to her own driving by. It's driven by someone who looks very similar to her. Confused, she follows the woman to an apartment that has photographs of the doppelganger and her father, but has no idea who the woman is. Distracted and distraught, she gets into a car crash and wakes up in the hospital. Desperate to put together the sequence of events, her life slowly descends into paranoia and confusion as her father (Richard Jenkins) and family begin to act more peculiar, more alien, more like copies of themselves.
Challenging horror films are rare delights these days, given the public preference for buckets of blood these days. If everyone could make movies like David Cronenberg or David Lynch, everyone would, but it is a rare talent to weave discomfort and dread in audiences without stimulating their visual gag reflexes and horror receptors. When a film comes around that manages to be scary without actually doing anything scary, it deserves praise, if only for being daring enough to try. The Broken is not necessarily a good film; it is needlessly long, irritatingly elliptical and vague, re-appropriating horror tropes endlessly, but it definitely plays games with your head. For that, I approve.
Audiences expecting a clear narrative may as well sign off now. The Broken tells its story via the total absence of plot points, opting for a less straightforward approach. Facial expressions, subtle nuances, leitmotifs of breaking mirrors, tiny little flashes of repressed memories—all weave a picture, although we're not quite sure what the picture shows. This is a composition of the absence of horrific imagery, tweaking our expectations in order to produce the very emotions in audiences we least expect. The girl wanders, dazed and confused into the room, the camera lurches and twists as if any moment, a crazed murderer will appear and slay her. We expect it, we wait in adrenal anticipation…but it never comes. Still we still can't stop expecting it. Musical cues build into horrific crescendos, and then suddenly stop, leaving us on the edge of our seat with nowhere to go—and we fall for it every time.
The payoff in The Broken is as enigmatic as its very premise. Don't expect some huge satisfying reward for sailing its choppy, cerebral waters. Fans of the psychological know that the true reward is the journey itself, even if it takes you absolutely @#$% nowhere. Seriously, anyone who expects a film about doppelgangers and mental illness to have a clear-cut ending deserves to be capsized. The plot in and of itself isn't particularly stellar; most sequences are silent (this must have been one short screenplay) and dialogue is rare.
The ideas put out in The Broken have been done before, but rarely in such an enigmatic and frustrating way. If Mirrors irritated and offended your brain, this film might be the medicine for your malady, using many of the same ideas in a profoundly less stupid manner. However, trying to quantify The Broken in of itself is problematic. This isn't really a film about going from A to B, or about character development, as much as atmosphere and mood, or shadow and suspicion. We don't have Scales of Justice for those criteria yet. The ending is twisting, confusing, and oddly satisfying in an alien kind of way. It's nice to see the film go out the way it came in, enigmatic and distant, unwilling to explain itself to audiences.
Composed in steely grays and heavy shadows, The Broken is visually striking. Its cinematography is elegant, sophisticated and challenging, and suggests the talent of a film with a far larger budget. Black levels are deep and rich, and colors are muted heavily into spectrums of steels and browns. Detail is average, not quite razor-sharp, but not soft; grain is noticeable throughout the low-lit sequences, a distracting fly-buzzing in seas of black. For a moderately low-budget horror film, The Broken looks marvelous, but the presentation is not without its contentious issues. Read on for more information.
The audio comes in 5.1 Dolby Digital, and it's an inconsistent presentation, alternating between awesomeness and peculiarity. The film is heavily dependant on atmosphere to maintain tension (in absence of plot or on-screen action) and the track does admirably here, with subtle environmental detail, plenty of rear channel action, low sweeping bass pulses that will challenge your system's LFE capabilities, and a churning, caterwauling score that builds and builds, then suddenly vanishes. On the negative side, dialogue is mixed unusually quiet, so one needs to jack up the volume during sequences of conversation and dial it down at seemingly random points where the orchestra decides to swell up. If you can annoy your neighbors, crank the volume—The Broken sounds fantastic.
There are no extras to speak of save for "Miss Horrorfest" Webisodes, 60 minutes of audition reels by super hot goth women trying to be scary and sexy to win a contest or something, in short film format.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Irritatingly, Lionsgate has butchered the technical presentation of The Broken something fierce. The opening credits are presented in the film's native aspect ratio of 2.35:1, which is spiffy, but once the titles finish rolling, the film crops down to 1.78:1. This isn't the first time Lionsgate has made the onerous decision to shove a film into a shoe two sizes too small, and I'm not sure why they feel the need to continue to do it with new releases. Even more annoying is the fact that the scenes in 2.35:1 look noticeably smoother, less grainy and crisper than the cropped portions of the film.
Passing judgment on a film that works so hard to confound audiences is a tricky verdict to render. Fans of cerebral and psychological horror will devour The Broken hungrily, like a thirsty man in the desert offered a canteen of water. Films that satisfy this need are few and far between, so we beggars can't be choosers. We'll even take the hit on Lionsgate butchering the aspect ratio.
For mainstream horror fans who want to see their horror clichés satisfied, not repeatedly manipulated and messed with? They should run far and fast away from The Broken. Fast and far!
Weird, but not guilty.
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