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Eden Lake (2008)
Writer and director: James Watkins

review by Jonathan McCalmont

In the 2009 edition of the Time Out Film Guide, noted film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum argues that going to the cinema is no longer an adult activity; the large screens are dominated by costumed vigilantes, the smaller screens by CGIed animals, and the entire comedy genre has been reduced to a series of crude pratfalls and fart jokes. As evidenced by the sugary beverages and the artificially coloured toxic waste on sale in foyers up and down the country, the modern cinema is built to suit the tastes of the adolescent and the child. This demographic shift might well go some way to explaining why it was that Eden Lake slipped so effortlessly from our cinema screens. After all, why should children want to watch a film that paints them as the villains? Personally, I am not entirely convinced by Rosenbaum's argument but the fact that he would make it speaks to the universality of the idea that there is a tangible and growing divide between the world of the adult and that of the child. At first glance, this is what the film is all about but a more open-minded reading suggests that our willingness to carve the world up in this way is actually part of a wider problem.

Much like Princess Diana prior to her marriage, Jenny (Kelly Reilly) is a prim and pretty young west London pre-school teacher. Her boyfriend Steve (Michael Fassbinder) is equally affluent and equally attractive, with all the bullish confidence that comes from a public school education. Hoping to propose in a romantic setting, Steve takes Jenny for a weekend outside of London camping on the shores of a disused quarry that has since been turned into a lake. Upon arriving at the lake, the couple are disappointed to find that someone is planning to turn it into a gated community. However, these trespasses by the forces of commerce are not nearly as disruptive as the discovery that the lake is also a gathering point for the local working-class children who come complete with hoodies, drum 'n' bass and large aggressive dogs.

Refusing to be cowed, Steve demands that the kids turn down their music, thereby kicking off a series of tit-for-tat escalations that end with Steve being stabbed to death while one of the kids videos him on her mobile phone. This leaves Jenny alone, scared and lost in the woods surrounding the lake as the kids hunt her down for fear that she run to the police. However, lost in the woods without a phone, Jenny does not turn to the police.

Cinematically, Eden Lake is an impressive piece of work. The plot is tightly written, introducing us, elegantly, not only to the main characters but also the worlds they inhabit. The tension levels are artfully built-up and explosively released as the situation for the couple keeps getting worse and worse. The film is incredibly focussed, well made and shot in a similarly earthy style to that used in Neil Marshall's The Descent, which is perhaps unavoidable given that the films share a production team (indeed, Watkins is both a writer and an assistant director on the incomprehensible sequel The Descent: Part Two). The only time Watkins' focus slips is towards the middle of the second act when the characters all start aimlessly running around in the woods until a set-piece turns up. Despite this, Eden Lake functions well on a purely technical level and is, undeniably, an entertaining and thrilling piece of horror filmmaking. However, what elevates this film above other merely well made works of horror such as Greg Maclean's Wolf Creek (2005), is the film's thematic depth.

It is not uncommon for literary critics to speak of horror purely in terms of the effect that it has upon its readers. For example, John Clute's The Darkening Garden (2006) suggests that horror that has been stripped of fantastical elements can only be discussed in terms of this effect. Even contemporary genre critics seem happy to live with this assessment as evidenced by Nick Mamatas' essay on horror in the October 2008 issue of The Internet Review Of Science Fiction. However, such assessments of the horror genre fail to recognise that much of horror's intellectual weight comes not from its capacity to make your spine tingle, but rather its usefulness as a tool of social commentary; allowing writers and directors to put their finger upon man's fears not only about other men, but also man's fears about his own twisted nature.

Indeed, Wes Craven's The Last House On The Left, and The Hills Have Eyes, are both well made and visually shocking works of what Clute calls 'affect horror', but they are classics because they also speak of the American mainstream's fear of the socially marginalised as well as pointing out the savagery and ruthlessness that underpins and preserves the genteel reality of the American middle-class existence. Similarly, Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door (1989) has real power not because of Ketchum's skill at inventing and describing scenes of horrific brutality and abuse, but because of what those acts reveal about the lengths to which humans are capable of going (particularly seeing as the novel is based upon a real story).

Eden Lake continues this grand tradition by tackling the issue of shared spaces and the conflict between different groups that can come from this forced cohabitation. Jenny and Steve are wealthy, attractive, young and live in London. Steve decides to take Jenny to Eden Lake because he sees it as a discovery he made while on a diving holiday. From Steve's point of view, Eden Lake is unclaimed territory. We can see that this is how he feels about the lake because of the visible contempt he has for the planned gated community that is being built around the lake. The people who will be moving into that community are doubtless identical to Jenny and Steve but nonetheless, these future residents are seen as interlopers. Similar hostility is evident in Steve when some local kids turn up on the same beach and begin to spoil the tranquillity with loud horseplay, even louder music and an unrestrained and potentially dangerous dog. Clearly annoyed by these interlopers (despite the fact that they probably spend far more time near that lake than Steve ever did), Steve demands that they turn down their music and control their dog but he is met only with the kind of hostility and complete lack of empathy that is the calling card of 'poorly socialised' teenagers.

Many critics have described the teenagers in Eden Lake as 'feral kids', but this could not be further from the truth. Unlike the children in David Moreau's Them, Eden Lake's teenagers have faces, names and parents. They are in no way feral. They just operate in accordance with different social laws as evidenced by the numerous scenes in which the group of teenagers interact, displaying that Brett is the leader who has the better clothes and the more confident manner while his girlfriend (another status symbol) grants him authority and allows him to determine what the group should do and what is required of its members (tellingly it is the black kid who is most eager to play along with Brett's violence... he is different to the other kids and so his status is the most precarious). Furthermore, when we see the kids' families they are not living in some hut in the hills. Instead they live in detached houses with jacuzzis, barbecues and no qualms about disciplining their children.

As with Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971), these are not young people who are wild and uncivilised, these are young people with a culture, a hierarchy and a set of values that just happen to be largely incommensurable with those of affluent adult Londoners.

Eden Lake is a film about how a diverse culture can result not only in different and seemingly incommensurable worldviews, but also how these clashing worldviews can result in violence when they are combined with shared spaces and a refusal to compromise. Indeed, the issues of age-gaps and class differences are present in Eden Lake but they exist solely as easy handles to latch onto as the film carries us along on its wave of violence and destruction. The kids are not feral, the parents are not incestuous hillbillies or members of some underclass... they are just not affluent Londoners. The film's central conflict stems as much from the kids' refusal to turn down their music when politely asked to as it does from Steve's arrogant belief that he can tell locals what to do when he decides to camp at their spot.

Steve's status as an interloper is conferred through two scenes. The first comes after an initial encounter with the kids when Steve spots one of their BMXs and decided to step into someone's kitchen in order to 'have a word' with the parents. He soon discovers that, despite the open door, nobody is home and he is soon trapped as an angry father stomps about downstairs looking for his son. In one elegant move, the tables are turned and Steve is transformed from tourist with a grievance to burglar. When you see this scene you'll groan at Steve's decision to step into someone else's house uninvited and that's precisely the point... Steve has little respect for the territory of others despite his anger and intolerance of what he sees as people intruding upon his turf, whether it is noisy kids or developers. The second scene comes when Steve and Jenny have lunch in a local café and decide to complain to the waitress about the local kids. "Not my kids!" the waitress spits at them and she is quite right... why would Steve assume that she would know who they were? The waitress tried to deflect the issue politely by making jokes but Steve keeps on asking, thereby alienating the friendly woman. Clearly all the locals look alike to Steve.

Trapped in the middle of this communication breakdown is Jenny. Despite being pretty, affluent and very much a Londoner, Jenny is presented as an interstitial character. Because she is a pre-school teacher she knows how to handle children and so pleads with her boyfriend that he compromise and see things from their point of view. Her cries fall on deaf ears and before long; Jenny is running for her life through the woods. As she lashes out in an attempt to stay alive, Jenny is not particularly discerning in her targets, killing two people that are expressly shown turning their backs on Brett and his desire to kill the couple. On a character level, this is particularly moving as Jenny's character-arc is a mirror image of the ridiculously reasonable character played by Dustin Hoffman in Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971). Where Hoffman's character arc suggests that politeness, empathy and morality are just thin veneers that cover up the raging beast within, Kelly Reilly's Jenny never stops being the pretty and caring pre-school teacher. The point of Eden Lake is not that Jenny's ordeal unlocks the real Jenny that is hidden inside her, rather it is that a failure to compromise and a climate of danger and death can force otherwise good people to do things that are not only morally wrong but also deeply stupid and unnecessary. The fact that we are shown the repercussions of Jenny's foolish actions only underlines the need for cool heads and clear thinking.

If Eden Lake has a theme it is that the things that divide us are ultimately immaterial. You can come from different areas, different classes, different backgrounds, and be very different people but this does not mean that you are doomed to enter into conflict with each other. Instead the film functions as a kind of road-map to multiculturalism that argues the case for a willingness to compromise that takes precedence over more demanding political goals such as tolerance or understanding. This might well appear quite a banal point to be making but it is interesting to note that one of the founding texts of the neo-conservative justification for the 'war on terror' and the occupation of Iraq was Samuel P. Huntington's 1993 article 'The Clash Of Civilisations', and that article (and the book that appeared later) paint the world as divided into a series of incommensurable, uncompromising and eternally hostile monolithic cultural blocks.

This same pre-sociological understanding of how culture works permeates the point of view that Eden Lake is explicitly arguing against. There is no clash between 'adults' and 'kids', 'middle-class' and 'working-class' people or even 'Londoners' and 'middle Englanders', there are cultural differences but it is foolish simple-mindedness to assume that any of these blocks are monolithic or that they are necessarily hostile towards anyone. If critics have talked about Eden Lake as a film about feral teens and working class parents that refuse to control their off-spring it is because the type of people who write (and read) criticism tend to be more like Jenny and Steve than Brett and Paige but the truth is that when it comes to machismo, arrogance and a refusal to compromise then the problems are universal to humanity and not the preserve of any particular age-group or class.
Eden Lake - French poster

Eden Lake - iconic image

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