I want to say nice things about The Descent. Or, more… I wish I could say nice things about The Descent. There are some nice things to say about it–the production values are strong, Marshall’s composition is decent, Sam McCurdy’s photography is good. It’s rarely boring–though it does drag a little. Tedious without being boring. Possibly because the characters are all so unlikable you’re just waiting for them to die off.
The characters are unlikable partially because of director Marshall’s script, partially because of the actors, partially because of Marshall’s “direction” of the actors.
The Descent is about six women who go caving in North Carolina. With the exception of organizer Natalie Mendoza, they’re all either from the British Isles or they’re Scandinavian. They travelled halfway across the globe for this caving trip, because–as the opening of the film recounts–ostensible lead Shauna Macdonald has lost her family in a horrible car accident and she needs to get back to her extreme sports lifestyle.
While horrific, the car accident is also exceptionally contrived. All the character relationships in The Descent are exceptionally contrived. Marshall’s characterizations are razor thin, so having a bunch of bland, sometimes interchangeable actors who he doesn’t give any performance direction contributes a lot to that tediousness I mentioned. Maybe if Macdonald weren’t so wooden. Or Mendoza. But mostly Macdonald. What’s so strange is there are some outliers–Alex Reid, as Macdonald’s BFF, is good. Her character’s still thin, but she’s good. And Saskia Mulder and MyAnna Buring as the Scandinavian sisters are fine. They’re likable. Mendoza, from her first scene, is exceptionally unlikable. Ditto her protege Nora-Jane Noone, though for different reasons. And while Macdonald is supposed to be tragic and sympathetic, it’s in a porcelain doll sense. She’s lost her family, after all.
Something none of the other characters really engage with. Or, in Noone’s case, even seem to know about. Besides Noone, they’re all ostensibly best extreme sports buds. Who have absolutely no chemistry with one another. Mendoza’s an abject sociopath from scene one and there’s no reason anyone–particularly not the characters in the film–would be friends with her, much less trust her to plan a caving trip in Deliverance country.
Noone and Mendoza’s character relationship–and utter lack of onscreen chemistry–is one of Descent’s many deficiencies. Marshall’s script and direction is about moving caricatures from point A to point B. It’s grating.
But The Descent isn’t a Deliverance riff. Well, unless you want to make a lot of mean jokes about Applachian mountain men. See, down in the unexplored cave, the women discover they’re not alone. There are monsters. And so then the women have to inventively–often using their caving gear–fight the monsters.
Marshall borrows action beats from a variety of films–mostly the first couple Alien movies and, thanks to David Julyan’s almost comically derivative score, The Thing. There are some good shots here and there, along with some bad ones (including a jaw-droppingly bad composite), but Marshall, editor Jon Harris, and photographer McCurdy don’t impress. The sets–all the cave interiors are sets–impress. A bit. Not enough to make up for any of the film’s other deficiencies, but they’re good.
Almost anything would’ve improved The Descent. Writing, acting, directing (as far as the performances go). With any of those elements improved, Marshall could’ve been just as derivative and the film would’ve turned out better. Instead, he’s got this derivative film with all sorts of other problems.
Though, really, it’s an absurdly obvious film from the opening titles scene so… none of what follows is actually surprising.
Oh. Right. The lack of jump scares. It seems intentional. At least, I hope it’s intentional. But as a stylistic choice it’s a little weird. They might get the energy up. Nothing else does.
Written and directed by Neil Marshall; director of photography, Sam McCurdy; edited by Jon Harris; music by David Julyan; production designer, Simon Bowles; produced by Christian Colson; released by Pathé Distribution.
Starring Shauna Macdonald (Sarah), Natalie Mendoza (Juno), Alex Reid (Beth), Saskia Mulder (Rebecca), MyAnna Buring (Sam), and Nora-Jane Noone (Holly).