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Wilderness: Variation on a Theme

August 13, 2009

The recent passing of John Hughes has elicited fond memories of his legacy.  Comedies like Sixteen Candles, Breakfast Club, Weird Science, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off captured the essence of teen angst.  His characters, awkward and clumsy, were filled with doubts, fears, and desires.

The complex psyches of teens have been explored often in the horror genre as well, but often as a device used in the systematic set-up of a violent and bloody end.  In Battle Royale, for example, the plight of each teen is revealed through flashback only moments before said teen meets brutal demise. In movies like Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween, teens are routinely punished for their promiscuity and rebelliousness; while in the new generation of torture/porn, kids are lured like dogs into unbearable situations.

But the best coming of age stories are born from scripts that borrow from the likes of Hughes by recognizing teenagers not as cardboard cutouts, but as products of their unique surroundings fostering complex thoughts and hidden yearnings for acceptance and love. Michael J Bassett’s Wilderness (2006), with a script by Dario Poloni, successfully melds the horrors of the juvenile system with the sad, often tragic consequences of childhood gone wrong in order to present a truly intense study. Populated with a solid group of actors, Wilderness continues Bassett’s fascination with distressed young men begun with his first film, the 1917 World War I horror story, Deathwatch (2002).

In Deathwatch, a group of British Soldiers, including actor Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot, Jumper), take shelter in a German bunker, only to encounter an unexplainable force intent on picking them off.  The soldiers, just boys, find their inner demons are as powerful as the evil presence lurking in the shadows.

In Wilderness, a group of hardcore teens, including a murderer, sex offender, armed robber, and sociopath are sent to a deserted island to “learn a bloody lesson” after one of their bunkmates commits suicide. Led by Jed (Sean Pertwee), their caring mentor, they quickly find that they are not alone.  Something evil is on the island with them.

Steve (Stephen Wight) is the bully, controlling his bunkmates with fear and humiliation.  Lewis (Luke Neal) is Steve’s counterpart, hulking and quiet, he does what Steve says.  Lindsey (Ben McKay) and Dave (John Travers) are cowardly; slumping shoulders, heads down, they try in vein to appeal to Steve’s humanity.  The group is rounded out by Jethro and Blue.  Then we meet Callum (Toby Kebbell).  He is tall, confident, and thoughtful.  Provoked immediately by Steve, he swallows his pride and ignores the annoying boy.  Callum is a thinker, and he wants to “do his time quietly, use his head, and get out of here.”

But when Jethro’s arm is found floating down the river, turning the sparkling rapid blood red in its wake, all hell breaks loose.  On the move now, Bassett’s camera floats high above the island’s trees, accentuating the beautiful, expansive terrain while reminding his audience that there is little chance of escape.  Suddenly, an arrow pierces Jed’s shoulder.  The prison guard looks down in shock.  Another arrow slices through the air, entering just to the right of the first, then another. He falls to the ground.  The boys look on in horror. It is Callum who races to his aid.  A whistle sounds.  Four German Shepherds race down the hill and around the trees. They move briskly, gracefully; they appear faster than normal dogs.

The boys scatter.  The dogs surround Jed and lie down.  They wait.  Callum looks on, confused.  The whistle sounds again. The dogs attack, tearing Jed to pieces.  Bassett’s camera doesn’t flinch as the dogs eat away at his flesh.  And so the boys run again, this time for their lives.  As the movie progresses, it is Callum who takes the lead.  Lindsey asks Steve, “Why is he (Callum) in charge now?”  Steve doesn’t want to show his weakness, but Bassett’s camera captures his contemplation.  He feels safe following Callum; maybe it is the first time he has ever felt safe.  But Steve is tortured, and his nature will not allow his weaknesses to show.

So Wilderness works on multiple levels.  On one level, it is a survival story, where the hunted, comprised of the worst kind of juvenile offenders, are doomed to die at the hands of a merciless warrior.  On another level, it is a coming of age story, a study of the destructive violence born deep within the child lacking the maturity to control it.  Without guidance, hope, and understanding, the kids self destruct under the cloud of looming death.  There is no redemption here; there is an exterminator at work.

But there is Callum, the thinker, providing sustenance, leadership, and protection.  He earns the respect of the group because he is honest; he is pure.  And in the end, it is the story of man versus man because the boy in Callum has grown up.  Borrowing a page from the brightest moments in some of John Hughes’s best movies, Bassett shows a keen understanding of the teenage experience.  Wilderness is at its best in this territory, and is a worthy entry in the pantheon of coming of age tales, regardless of the genre.

Bassett’s next film is Solomon Kane, based on a character imagined  by Conan creator Robert E. Howard.  The preview played at this year’s comic con to raucous applause. 

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