Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers remains one of the most inspirational horror novels ever written, so it’s expected every once in a while a director takes a poke at the theme of substitution: of a person suddenly replaced by another due to some eerie conspiracy, either political, alien, or in the case of Sean Ellis’ new spin, just ‘cause.
Ellis’ variation is rooted in impressionism; mirrors shatter, a duplicate trapped in a murky, underlit world steps out and eventually kills the original, and as a mood piece, The Broken is superb: Ellis knows how to stage beautifully composed shots of stillness, compile montages that elasticize tension when there’s no visual menace within a shot, and he edits chase scenes for economy without being showy.
One truly gets the impression Ellis has studied Dario Argento’s films for the way in which the latter focuses on movement, as well as nuances; there’s great poetry, for example, in the lengthy sequence wherein radiologist Gina McVey (Lea Headey) thinks she sees her duplicate driving her car, and follows her into the garage of an apartment building. Visually, the emphasis is on moving objects in blockish details: the nose of a car, the key clicking into a lock before turning, or a glance at a picture frame while stepping forward.
The car accident that sends Gina into shock is also treated with economy: details of the accident are revealed in flashes, and while they don’t provide additional information per se, the flash cuts agglomerate in clusters until they form a more cohesive flashback that tells both Gina and the audience exactly what happened on the day of the accident (even though one can spot the twist quite early in the film).
Ellis also constructs the smash-up using simple visuals: a reaction shot, a brake pedal being slammed down, a huge screeching tire, and a collision from the driver’s seat and from the side – the latter captured with a high-speed camera much in the way Argento filmed the final shot of Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971).
There’s also a reliance on a dense sound mix to maintain a constant state of unease, and a chunk of that tension comes from silence, isolated sound effects, and Guy Farley’s wonderful score. Farley’s music exaggerates the primal fear of aloneness, of suspecting a close one of treachery and foul play, and his orchestra is forever snarling away in the background whenever people are walking down corridors or entering a room.
Ellis also maintains a theme of mirror images, blocking the actors so they often stand beside mirrors or cast reflections on subway windows. It gets heavy at times, but it works well in scenes where a character walks into a room, and it’s a reflection of a reflection, and makes one wonder whether the world we’re being shown is the good side, or the flipside where characters are aching to break out.
From a narrative stance, the structure is simple: as Gina suffers from trauma inflicted by the accident, she suspects her boyfriend isn’t her boyfriend, while her brother soon senses his girlfriend is a fake, and the siblings’ father is poised to be taken by his own duplicate. Moments within the film pay homage to Finney’s tale, such as the brother’s neighbour who shows fear of his wife, the psychiatrist who blames Gina’s substitution suspicions on a rare mental condition, and the finale that involves a confrontation and flight.
Where The Broken runs afoul is in logic: no matter how you analyse the film, the reason for the takeover, as well as the takeover itself, makes no bloody sense, and that’s a flaw that rests solely in Ellis lap. In going for a minimalist mediation on substitution with hyper-poetic visuals and sounds, he also created a story that’s ridiculous.
What is the murky world inhabited by clones? Who are the clones? Why do they need to take over the other world? If they can see through mirrors, when one shatters, shouldn’t there be a hole in the wall? If this is a shift between worlds, wouldn’t there by piles of bodies in the apartments and homes of ‘the broken’ originals, if not littering alleys and dumpsters? If Gina’s clone has learned of her victim's life through mirrors, how did she learn enough to take over her life as a practising radiologist? Wouldn’t all the clones suffer from mental and personality gaps that would make them incapable of functioning in society, let alone at work?
By excising any reason for the takeover, The Broken is nonsense, and it’s a shame, because much like Jonathan Glazer’s Birth (2004), it’s the product of a director with a strong visual sense and a knack for creating unease through very simple means (evidenced even in his first film, Cashback), but Ellis’ script is all smoke, shadows, and mirrors, and while it’s worth a peek as a mood piece, it’s also a belittling tease.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan