James Watkins, a British director who has gone on to stand behind the lens on the Hammer-produced horror film, The Woman in Black, made his directorial debut in 2008 with a film he also wrote, this tense and nasty little thriller called Eden Lake.
Jenny and Steve (played with conviction by Kelly Reilly and Michael Fassbender) take a trip for a romantic weekend away in the country in which Steve is planning to propose. They reach a secluded beach that is surrounded by forest land, and all seems peaceful and ideally as our loving couple set up a tent and lay back on their beach towels, watching the water drift calmly along. Their peace and quiet is quickly soiled as a group of abhorrent teenage locals sit close to them, playing loud music, staring and making obscene hand gestures and letting their dog shit nearby. Attempting to provoke Jenny and Steve, the teens soon wander off, leaving the adults to attempt to move on from the ordeal and enjoy their getaway, but all is not quite so simple. We find that the teenage hoodlums have stolen Steve’s car, causing Steve and Jenny to go looking for them. One thing leads to another and the story turns to one of sadism, violence and a game of hide and seek in a strange forest in an even stranger town.
The main culprit and antagonist of the teenage group is Brett, played by the young Jack O’Connell (This is England, Skins) and he does a fantastic job at bringing an almost-unbearable and obnoxious detestability to the character, whilst also providing a depth in the later scenes that allows us a small peek into why this disgusting child acts in the way that he does. A different kind of monster, Brett is a metaphor for a section of British youth in today’s society, uneducated and without structure or boundaries in his life, Brett represents a frightening statistic, a dark fraction of society that is often quietly ignored and brushed away.
The chase between the teens and the adults is what really brings the pressure to a boiling point, and the setting is really ingenious, offering not just a random forest, but a town filled with questionable residents. While I did like the setting, I would have liked the town itself to have played a larger part in the story, perhaps with more emphasis on Steve and Jenny’s complaints about the teenagers and their criminal behaviour. I will also say that while I understand the need for the teenage thugs to be arrogant and nauseating, there were times when it almost became a bit too anger-inducing and a couple of moments that felt far-fetched, making me question why a person would put themselves into obviously questionable situations.
Fassbender puts in a great performance, as does his co-star, Reilly, and they create a relationship that feels warm and gentle, whilst bringing a terror and pain to the screen that is visceral and at times agonising to witness. I thought that the two did a wonderful job at showing an increasing realisation that there circumstances were only going to get worse.
There is a constant feeling of discomfort present in this film, an atmosphere of impending violence or escalating doom, and I felt myself wanting to put my hand into the screen and pull our innocent and starry-eyed couple out of it, putting them on a road back to where they came from. There were elements here, without giving too much away, that felt like a British spin on a backwoods hillbilly horror film. These elements of horror along with the gradual build in tension, creates a wonderful thriller that avoids most clichés whilst hitting the right spots. The end of the film, which I will not give away or discuss here, was interesting, but not the destination that I would have liked to have arrived at personally. Still, it left me curious, infuriated and exhausted, as well as eager to watch the film again.
Without a doubt one of the better horror/thriller’s to come out of England in the last decade, Eden Lake almost announces itself as “Urban British Horror”, a genre that only works in the UK and so makes it a very interesting and special sort of film. It isn’t perfect, sure, but it was a very engrossing piece of film that kept me chewing on its proverbial hook until its closing moment. I recommend it.