Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Hate Life? Perhaps Yours Is Just BROKEN

Shhhhhhh. Don’t tell anybody, but I watched this film. That’s right, intro banner that warned “This DVD is for sale only” be damned, I hit ‘play’ and viewed it. Then sent it back to Netflix without selling it. I’m wild like that. 
I’m also something of a movie masochist, often in more ways than one. You knew that from my inability to not watch titles like Death Bed: The Bed That Eats, Empire of the Ants, or anything from any one of my four Mill Creek 50 packs. Broken is a different kind of pain: a well-made 2006 horror that seeks to do nothing more than make you miserable. Consider it one of those truly unpleasant experiences--not without its merit, mind you--worth investing in when the sun is shining way too brightly and you really feel the need to stab your eyes with cyanide coated safety pins.
Quick Plot: A dimly lit prologue follows a woman awakening in an above ground coffin (thank heaven for small favors). As she stumbles through a seemingly empty forest, a man clad in black butts his rifle in her face. Moments later, she finds herself tied to a tree with a nagging stomach cramp. That tends to happen when a razor blade has been inserted and stitched up inside. 

Worst. Day. Ever.
After a messy self-inflicted operation, our mystery blond is offered the chance to go on or give up. Bleeding and beaten, she makes her choice and we sigh in relief to see her misery end. 
Then we realize we’re about to get treated to watching this all over again.
Two weeks later, a nice single mum named Hope (Nadja Brand) achieves the kind of blind date that makes girlfriends squeal with envious glee. But you know what’s worse than the dreamguy not calling for a followup? Being kidnapped by another unnamed fellow and enslaved in the wilderness.

And that’s pretty much the plot in a linguistic nutshell. After surviving a few early torturesome tasks, Hope is shackled and re-dressed as her captor (known in credits simply as The Man and played by Eric Colvin with a slight resemblance to Robert Englung channeling Anthony Perkins) forces her to tend a garden and scrub his pots (not a euphemism). Hope clings to, well, hope, playing the part of the happy servant in the hopes that The Man will divulge the fate of her young daughter. There’s not an incredible amount more to tell without spoiling, but then again, there’s also not a whole lot more that actually happens anyway.
Broken was filmed over the course of two years by co-directors Simon Boyes and Adam Mason, a fact well documented in the dense extras on the Dimension Extreme’s DVD. Financed primarily by the filmmakers and lead actress Nadja Brand (then married to Mason, a fact that’s interesting in itself when you consider some of this particular process), Broken is surprisingly successful at making the most of one location (and making it appear far more sprawling onscreen) and finding its cinematic voice despite its meager share of dialogue. I never doubted Hope’s desperation or the The Man’s carefully laid out plan. The film that takes place is a sort of nightmare, but the narrative itself is delivered in a fully believable way.

Then again, I also didn’t enjoy the movie, but you should probably worry for my moral stability if I had. Unlike something like the later Saw movies (jabbed at so specifically on the DVD cover), which inadvertently invoke humor based on the sheer over-the-toppitude of increasingly elaborate traps, Broken is played out with all the solemnity of a funeral. I suppose this is appropriate, as slavery isn’t generally a laughing manner and some of Hope’s decisions need that level of escalated reality in order to register in their horror, but it also makes for one truly unpleasant viewing experience. 
Is it worth your time? It all depends on how you like to spend it. The enslavement angle is quite interesting and how it plays out is far different from a lot of other woman-in-peril themed cinema, straight down to the surprising role sex plays and the simultaneous disturbing/inoffensive scene that takes the relationship into new territory. For what it is and what has come before it, Broken is noteworthy and not without merit. That doesn’t mean I have any desire to ever see it again.
High Points
Despite being shot on digital video for less money than Harvey Weinstein’s lunch bill, Broken’s photography is absolutely striking

She doesn’t really get much to do, but Nadja Brand is a strong presence who helps to hold the film together with earnestness and believability
The opening structure that introduces Hope is quite cleverly done. Instead of drawn-out scenes to force an audience connection, we get a quick and cute date to establish some details about our soon-to-be heroine and immediately build a connection to her daughter
Low Points
It’s okay for us to never really understand the nature of The Man, but Colvin’s performance doesn’t quite make him the enigma the script calls for him to be
I can generally excuse character actions (or lack thereof) that violate common sense in a stressful situation, but by the third almost-kill-the-villain-but-run-away-instead choice, it’s hard to maintain sympathy for Hope
Middle Ground
The ending is thoroughly cruel but not unwarranted in terms of the story. It’s miserable and will make you want to hug a puppy or hide inside the belly of a Tauntaun, but there’s a place for cinematic nihilism and Broken tends it with gardening skills straight out of a handbook
Lessons Learned
White fabric remains remarkably clean in lonely forests
Schoolgirl uniforms must be kept intact at all times. Sure, that tie may be confining, but rules are rules
To tend a near mortal wound, all you really need is a sprinkle of oregano

Broken is a tough movie to watch, but it’s somehow even more difficult to review. On one hand, few things are less pleasant than mean-spirited horror, where characters seem victimized purely to make the audience miserable. On the other, Broken is a beautifully shot, well executed example of how to make a horror film on a shoestring budget. The DVD includes several worthwhile extras, including a directors’ commentary, 50 minute making-of, and rather candid interview with likable star Nadya Brand. All the behind-the-scenes documentaries are extremely informative for budding filmmakers and refreshingly (sometimes uncomfortably) honest for general fans who simply want to learn more about what it took to get the final result (apparently, one marriage was at least part of the cost). If you’re interested in extreme or indie cinema, there’s a lot to learn here. If you’re not, there’s a whole lot less to enjoy.


  1. Off topic: I'd love to see a movie called "Death Bed: The Bed That Eats the Empire of the Ants"

    You'd have a bed that eats ants. Box office gold.

  2. My brain might very well explode if I were to witness a Death Bed Eating the Empire of the Ants. Especially since those ants were so selectively ginormous that the bed would have to be Godzilla sized. Then we could revive the old Godzilla Vs. series, but with a giant ant-eating Death Bed!

  3. Hmmm. I have seen this one around for awhile now and always wondered about it, not enough to look it up, but Dimension Extreme puts out some decent films from time to time.

    Sounds like a film I would enjoy in my own sick little way and I just did a write up for a film that reminds me of how you described Broken and who exactly it caters to.

    It should be noted, the cover looks an awful lot like the cover for Inside, which was also released by D.E.?

  4. Good point about Inside. I'm almost positive it was the same distributor, which seems both odd and fitting (why not fool a few buyers into putting money down on the wrong film? It all goes the same place).

    It's no Martyrs or WALL-E (yes, I'll be working that title into every comment until you watch it), and not even a Saw VI, but I appreciate what the filmmakers and actress/producer were able to accomplish on such an itty bitty budget. I think I may have hated the film until I went through some of the special features. It's not really a recommend, but I do think those that appreciate really mean or just indie horror might find something worthwhile.

  5. It's interesting that you mention Martyrs, as this review touches on a lot of my feelings on that film in particular and about a general kind of "two hours of peak experience" horror that has found a new audience over the past few years -- I appreciate that it exists, and I absolutely see why some people are very drawn to it, but it doesn't scratch any of my particular horror-themed itches at all, so the prolonged glum ritual of it just seems like a slog rather than the cathartic "putting the fingers in the wound" experience it is for others. It's a tricky and personal thing, getting at one's individual traumas, and I suspect a lot of the ADD/fetish "I need it to be exactly like this to work!" quality of some of these films means that the dropoff point for viewers is pretty severe -- it's either your bag or it ain't and the middle ground is pretty slim, so while there's a lot of this stuff which just doesn't work for me I try to cheerlead for it a bit, as I think there's a lot to be said for a film that has an idea and follows it all the way to the end no matter what.

    (word verification: woridst, or the perverse desire to misspell words just to piss off grammar nazis)

  6. I felt a little more generous to Martyrs as I feel it took this same sub-genre and tried to spin it around a few different angles. At the same time, like Cannibal Holocaust, you still have to sit through some of the more aggressively intense violence in order to finish and decide if the filmmaker succeeded at making a statement or just added another torture flick to the growing and now dated selection.

    I watched a good deal of the studio-released 'torture porn' films, and I think there's a significant line between something like Captivity--which was recut to cash in on the trend and feels extremely gratuitous--and Hostel II, which takes the idea of torture and plays with it. I guess there is a particular generation coming of age in the mid aughts who may indeed use the Saw series as their Friday the 13th, and I don't really judge that. I don't even think these films--for the most part--are any more mean-spirited than nameless teenagers getting hacked up by a silent and motive-less killer.

    I should stop because I could ramble about this all day. Thanks for the comments and putting it so well, db. I had trouble with this review because as much as I didn't like this movie, it does what it tried to do quite well and if it's your cup of juice, I can't not recommend it. I'm glad that kind of came across!

  7. I haven't even heard of this - so, thanks Emily. Great review. I think I might be tempted to check this one out - it sounds intriguing.

    In other news, I also just read your article on Battle Royale: Requiem in the new Paracinema - great stuff!
    Keep up the good work. ;o)

  8. I'll be curious to see if anybody else finds merit in Broken. Like I said, it's pretty darned hateable, but I do think that ultimately, the filmmakers succeeded at achieving what they were going for. Not that that's necessarily a good thing, but it is what it is.

    And thanks a bunch for the kind words! I look forward to your forthcoming Argento book, although I should probably get around to watching Deep Red and Tenebre before then, eh?