The Broken (2009)

Posted by Andrew Sneddon on October 18, 2009 in Blog tagged with

The idea of a modern classic is perhaps oxymoronic at best and hyperbolic at worst, and it’s an epithet that is probably applied too early, and too frequently, in the judgement of many texts. But, in my view, The Broken (written and directed by Sean Ellis, 2009) will be looked back on by both cinephiles and gothic enthusiasts alike as a truly interesting film. I’m not saying it is without flaw, but it’s well worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time and there are a lot of points of interest in it. I think there are a number of interpretations that can be put on it and its openness is a virtue. I say that’s my view purely to differentiate what I’m saying from the prevailing critical opinion that the film is a dud. It’s been described as ponderous, overly contrived and ‘sure to piss off the 99% of the people who want to see it’.

I really don’t agree with that, and I think this is perhaps one of those films that appeals to a niche audience with some knowledge of film history and / or psychological horror as a genre. This isn’t a Hollywood slasher movie by any means and so I think it’s fairly telling that it scores more highly in reviews from specialist horror review sites like bloody-disgusting.com (3.5/5) than it does from general movie review sites like IMDB (51/100). Having said that, I think my idea that this is a potential classic is a fairly contrary opinion so I will try to explain why I think that’s justifiable.

The first thing to be said is that the film is just gorgeous to look at. Every shot has a kind of compositional balance that reveals Sean Ellis’ training as a professional photographer. The lighting too is atmospheric and moody without being oppressive. Some films, or some directors perhaps, confuse gloom with artistry so that what is presented to the viewer is dim and opaque. This isn’t the case with the way The Broken is shot at all. It is shot in what is technically referred to as a ‘cool’ palate (lots of blue light and grey clothes etc) so that the images look crisp and defined while allowing for oodles of shadow on the periphery. If you’re finding it hard to imagine what the film looks like imagine an elegant young woman in a Chanel suit standing next to a Tiffany lamp which is the sole point of light a room. She is lit and defined but almost swimming in shadows. The film is chic rather than ‘hip’ if that makes sense.

This kind of slightly artsy production quality moves from the obvious visuals into the technicalities of the camera work too. I’ve just re-watched a few key scenes and been struck by just how unsettling and vaguely menacing the photography itself is. Technically this is achieved through the use of what film people call canted (or ‘Dutch’) angles. This is a subtle piece of camera technique that a viewer is often unaware of on a conscious level but which can be an incredibly powerful tool for conveying a range of moods from menace to seasickness. Quite simply, in a canted angle shot the camera is tilted in such a way that floors or walls can be made to appear to slope at the wrong angle when the image is viewed on screen. In The Broken I think the abiding feeling from the start is that something feels ‘wrong’, that some vague menace is always just out of sight, and this works perfectly with a slow-paced and stylised movie such as this. The tension really arises from what is not seen and what is not explained. Much of what is disturbing about the film happens out of frame and so the viewer relies on, and is troubled by, their own imagination for the most part. It’s the oldest trick in the book, but it is a classic technique precisely because it works.

I think the best analogue I can offer for how The Broken works and is directed would be Hitchcock. I think the film shows a great indebtedness to classic psychological horror and to films interested in the ‘unexplained’. Indeed the director and cast cite the long lists of their influences in this genre in interview. Many of the reviews I have read complain that the plot is convoluted, that x, y or z isn’t explained properly and that the ending feels contrived. They complain that the pacing is slow and then suddenly the ending rushes up on you and leaves you wondering ‘what did I just see?’ Well, you like that or you don’t, I suppose. If you like Vertigo or The Birds you may well like this too.

As far as gothic matters are concerned I can’t really say an awful lot without writing a spoiler. But essentially the film follows a young radiologist, Lena Headley, and what happens to her after her father’s retirement. She, her boyfriend, her brother and his partner spring a surprise party at the father’s house allowing the film to open with the sense of him going through his home feeling some ‘alien’ presence is menacing from the shadows. At the party all goes well until late in the evening when a mirror inexplicably shatters leaving the guests to joke uncomfortably at the seven years bad luck that will follow. The subsequent scenes are increasingly presented as shards of a greater narrative, just as the visuals become increasingly dependent on mirroring and reflections. The film features uncanny doubles and doppelgangers but I can’t say too much without giving it all away.

I’m not well-read on Lacan so I’m not in a position to offer much of an interpretation along those lines, but I have a feeling that a Lacanian analysis of this film could, potentially, be very interesting. I also think that the film ‘worries’ on some level about the return of the repressed, the unconscious, and the instinctual. There may be some significance to the absence of the family’s mother figure, too, but I’m not certain. Maybe there is something vaguely Kristevan can be done with it too? Again, that’s not my area so I’ll leave it to others to comment. I’d really be interested to know what people think of it though.

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