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The Broken

September 26, 2008

It’s a brave choice for a horror movie to even nod homage-style in the direction of Psycho‘s shower scene and come away unscathed. Similarly, referencing the shuddersome staple of clowns, not making a joke of it, and still walking around with head held high is a fairly admirable trick. Sean Ellis manages both in The Broken, keeping a perfect poker face as he drags the audience, wrapt, around a gloomy and washed out London, eking out a murky tale filled with shadows and grey spaces.

Starting with a simple back-of-a-stamp high concept that will have most psychological thriller aficionados sitting up and taking notice (a woman, Gina (Lena Headey), sees herself drive past in her own car); the plot carefully descends into a reality-challenging nightmare of eerie events and slickly mounted shocks.

Following the woman, Gina approaches an apartment block, and enters to confront her.

Or does she? The Broken is edited, and it surprised me to think of this, but it happens to be true, with a profligate disregard for linear story telling that brought to mind González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams. I know! Get me, comparing a juggernaut Art movie with a lil’ ole Brit horror flick. Well, the bottom line is that it’s a jigsaw, and it’s up to us to put it together. And blow me if it’s not done with considerable style and aplomb. Characters appear and disappear within scenes, and scars and bloodshot eyes (there is a grandly staged car crash at one point) will be apparent where no damage appeared just seconds previously. The rhythm of these cuts and turns, once grasped, is entertainingly employed, and easily propels the tale – given that it is a horror movie and even that genre’s fans will concede there are more dumb examples than clever ones – into a very smart niche indeed. So, yes, very decent stuff, and that’s not the end of it.

With the exception of one very brief shot at the start that I thought gave away too much early on, and almost had me giving up without offering it a chance, the engine behind the story is never properly explained. And a bloody good thing too. Gina is not alone in seeing potential doppelgangers, but the point of them, their function or abilities are simply not addressed. I’m a sucker for brooding and atmospheric, but the thing I’m always dreading is the tedious (and it’s almost always tedious) exposition scene. Here we have Show not Tell, but not a great deal of Show, really, to be honest, and The Broken benefits from that hugely. Why bother trotting out some laughable mythologising if you don’t have to?

Headey is absolutely terrific as Gina but, although this is a UK/French association, we don’t then drop off into a mélange of utter unknown French bit part actors; instead, they have really pushed the boat out and we have the excellent Richard Jenkins (the only good thing in Step Brothers, obviously, but also an alumnus of Six Feet Under, Flirting with Disaster, and the next Coen Brothers film, Burn After Reading). In addition, we have some seriously swanky widescreen cinematography (Angus Hudson take a bow for the wonderfully oppressive London landscapes) which paint the movie with a genuine patina of class.

But it’s Headey’s film, and in getting someone quite that beautiful Ellis is not merely going for an upmarket Rhona Mitra type to appeal to the fanboys, but he’s working a very considered and intelligent riff on her looks; because she is so striking he uses this brilliantly, her icy perfection working wonderfully well in all the reflection scenes (of which there are many), really bringing home the message that at some level, perhaps when people have achieved at the expense of love or emotional warmth, as you sense here, then there is a genuine fear of the self: what do we lose of ourselves, what do we sacrifice, what are we capable of, and can we look ourselves in the eye?

Piecing all of this together is a genuinely satisfying exercise, and the pay off, which is unexpected but fitting – and consistent with the mood, importantly – works as a perfect coda to what is ultimately an adroit and stylish thrill ride. The Broken knows that it’s horror film, and it wants you to know that, too, but it’s also making just a little bit of room for itself to show that in a crowded field you can, just occasionally, try something different.

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