Eden Lake: Review. By Joe Muldoon.
Poor, nasty, brutish, and short – a description befitting of a Hobbesian nightmare and of the sinister teens inhabiting Eden Lake. Uncompromising in its brutality and relentless in its hopelessness, Eden Lake is as startling a directorial debut as James Watkins could have hoped for. Fifteen years have passed since its release and in those years, the film’s viciousness has earnt itself a frequent spot in British horror-thriller discourse.
Co-leads Kelly Reilly and Michael Fassbender play Jenny and Steve, a young couple on their way to enjoy a woodland lake retreat. That is, until they discover that developers have arrived on the scene and intend to turn the once-secluded spot into a gated community tackily named Eden Lake. Undeterred, Steve leads Jenny towards the inviting waters and the two press on with their planned frolicking. The tranquility of their private paradise is soon trampled upon by the arrival of rowdy local yobs, accompanied by a blaring stereo and high-strung rottweiler.
Bravely (and foolishly), Steve strolls over to the group, asking them to turn their music down. His request is predictably met with sneering from the unmoving recipients, and spiky ringleader Brett (Jack O’Connell) dismisses him. Wisely cutting his losses, Steve returns to Jenny and they eventually hunker down for the night in their tent. The following day, they head into the local village in search of a bite to eat, and Steve also uses this as an opportunity to complain to the waitress about the behaviour of the hooligans. His remarks receive an icy reception as the waitress denies that the children would ever misbehave in such a way.
After returning to the lake, the lovers continue with their relaxation, unaware that their car keys and money have been stolen. Quickly connecting the dots, they trudge back towards the village on foot, only to narrowly miss being mowed down by their own commandeered vehicle, the thuggish Brett behind the wheel. Following a search that stretches into nightfall, their four-wheeler is found with the gang loitering nearby. Steve confronts the group demanding the return of his belongings, knives are brandished, and a scuffle ensues. In the ensuing chaos, Brett’s rottweiler is accidentally stabbed. This sends him flying into a blistering rage and unbeknownst to Jenny and Steve, so begins the worst night of their lives.
Dubbed at the time by one journalist as a work of ‘chavsploitation’, there’s little wonder that immediately following, and in years subsequent to its release, Eden Lake has been the subject of heated discourse surrounding its unfortunate Broken Britain class politics. A product of the frenzied tabloid fearmongering of the ASBO era, Eden Lake gives a cinematic voice to the late-noughties paranoia towards teenagers and council estates.
The publicly perceived dividing wall between loutish youth and civilised adults is pronounced with the lovely middle-class city folks finding themselves undeservedly terrorised by the troglodyte working-class villagers. Apparently incapable of hobbies beyond troublemaking, the teens are able to cunningly exploit their youth in order to masquerade as typical mischief-makers, their cruelty hiding behind their doe-eyed masks. It’s unsurprising that comparisons have been made to Straw Dogs and Deliverance, the otherness of backwater residents being unmistakable.
However, it would be heavy-handed to entirely dismiss Watkins’ debut on the basis of its treatment of class politics. Though they largely passed beneath the radar in international noughties consciousness, British filmmakers ushered in a small wave of ultra-gritty thrillers and horrors (Christopher Smith’s Creep, Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes, and Neil Marshall’s The Descent to name a few), the comparatively tame horror-thrillers of the US not quite whetting the British palette. Eden Lake triumphantly joined their ranks in 2008.
Despite the way in which some characters were written, the cast deliver excellent performances across the board, their vulnerability, fear, and ruthlessness woven intricately into their respective roles. Alongside the performances by Reilly and Fassbender (still in his acting ascendancy), teenagers O’Connell and Turgoose (most well-known to audiences as Shaun in This Is England) are notably accomplished in th, the two cleverly communicating their own characters’ power imbalance, never explicitly drawing attention to it.
To call Eden Lake ‘bleak’ would be to undersell it. Characters and audience alike, very little reprieve is offered from the lurking terror, the tension often hitting the ceiling but never settling back onto the floor. And therein lies much of its success; tapping into the now-seemingly-distant fears of the ‘hug a hoodie’ days, the unfolding events of the film spoke to British audiences, their worries resonating and seemingly being validated – it’s a great shame that this was at the expense of working-class people. Eden Lake is a cracking horror-thriller, albeit one marred by its blindness to its own class gaze.
By Joe Muldoon
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