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Monday, 27 January 2014

Nine Miles Down (2009)

Director: Anthony Waller
Stars: Adrian Paul and Kate Nauta
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
When I ask actors to pick two films from their filmographies for me to review, they usually come up with one immediately and then think before picking the second. That's how it was with Tiffany Shepis and it's how it was with Adrian Paul at DarkCon 2014 too; he plucked The Breed quickly out of his subconscious but pondered carefully before adding Nine Miles Down. I hadn't even heard of this one, but it's a worthy follow up to The Breed in a number of ways. It's another surprising film made from another surprising script and it was also shot in Budapest, though it couldn't have looked any more different; originally set in the Australian outback, the story was eventually shifted to the Sahara desert. It feels utterly different too. Instead of a wildly diverse international cast, we rarely see anyone except Paul or his co-star, Kate Nauta. Gone are the visual stylings, to be replaced by a workmanlike installation with very little to liven it up except the tone, which is introspective, hallucinogenic and agreeably claustrophobic.

The concept couldn't be more simple. Paul plays a security expert called Thomas Jackman, more usually known as Jack. He's tasked by his bosses at GNE to look into what happened to the folk who leased the Jebel Afra Drill Site from them in the remote deserts of northern Africa. Formerly used to drill for natural gas, Prof Borman and his team were interested instead in 'a vast geological anomaly' that had appeared on images a full nine miles below the surface. Simply put, they want to drill into it and see what comes out and they do so, but things don't go so well and communications are lost. Jack discovers that the 25 members of Prof Borman's team are either dead or missing, all except one woman who appears out of nowhere fifteen minutes into the film. She's Dr Jenny Christiansen, or JC, initials that presage the more religious aspect of the story, one backed up by a sound recording from nine miles down that might just be the screams of the tormented. Could Prof Borman have actually discovered the literal Hell?

The primary reason that Nine Miles Down is so successful is that it refuses to provide any answers. This could easily have become a message movie, but writers Everett De Roche and Anthony Waller refuse to go there, instead choosing to set up the characters as avatars for our own judgement. Initially, we're set up to see the religious angle, because that's what Prof Borman and his team apparently saw before they even made it to the desert. Jack finds a desk full of pertinent books: Dante's Inferno, The Arabian Nights and Huxley's The Devils of Loudon. There's also a religious encyclopaedia, opened to a highlighted entry on Umal Duwayce, described as 'a Middle Eastern version of the succubus'. Prof Borman's men believed what they were reading, it would seem, because they went so far as to sacrifice a jackal in an obviously religious ritual and use its blood to paint protective verses on the walls. For those who can't read Arabic, there's also a large 'Save Yourselves' daubed in blood on a corridor wall.
So we and Jack are conditioned to see what will come from a religious perspective, but we're also set up to see a more rational explanation. Nature is clearly unforgiving in this environment, with howling winds accompanying Jack's arrival. One key scene has him investigate a banging noise, to find that it's merely a screen banging against a door that has been propped shut with a chair; the door bursts open in front of Jack and the wind rushes into the facility. Everything in the scene is clearly and obviously explainable but we're already conditioned to hear tormented human voices in the wind and so is Jack. It's no wonder that as time passes, he starts to believe that perhaps there's something going on here beyond what we might deem rational, that the vast geological anomaly nine miles under the desert is something more than a vast geological anomaly and that Prof Borman's drillbit released someone or something who may be stalking the site, such as a demonic succubus highlighted in an encylopaedia.

And, of course, this is where JC comes in. For the first fifteen minutes we've clearly identified with Jack, because he's the only living character at the facility and, of course, because he's played by Adrian Paul, who's always the hero. Every other character we've seen is either somewhere else (like Kat, Jack's cute Aussie contact back at GNE), a recording (Prof Borman) or dead (a couple of Borman's team members wrapped up in makeshift bodybags). What we know of the Jebel Afra Drill Site and the desert around it thus far is what we've seen through Jack's eyes and, while it remains wrapped in mystery, one thing is crystal clear: it's far from a hospitable place. So when Dr Christiansen jogs in out of the desert as if she was just strolling through the park, we can't help but be a little suspicious. Jack asks the questions we would ask, of course. How come she isn't in any of Borman's team photos? Wasn't his expedition male only? Why is her name not on the team roster?

Of course, there's another unspoken question in the back of both Jack's mind and ours: is JC really Umal Duwayce? If this was a horror movie, that would be easy: of course she'd be Umal Duwayce. However it isn't a horror movie; it's a psychological thriller that doesn't play it that simply. JC becomes our secular voice of reason, remaining calm throughout proceedings to find rational explanations for the mysteries and provide answers to all the questions that arise. Jack, on the other hand, becomes the voice of faith, belief and possibility, who wants to trust those answers and believe those explanations but can't quite manage to do so because there are religious and supernatural takes that remain stubbornly consistent. How we read the story is fundamentally going to depend on which voice we listen to. The film could be seen from either perspective, but clearly we have to choose between them, a task which is not made easier by having us see JC through Jack's eyes and Jack through JC's.
Here's where things get neatly crazy and the crew come into their own. Adrian Paul and Kate Nauta do good work, strangely alternating their tone as the film runs on. Initially Paul grounds the film and Nauta lets our imaginations run wild, but later the roles switch. Nauta becomes the grounding as Paul explores psychological torment. The more overt effects are kept sparse but they're highly effective for the most part. One particularly freaky scene has Jack reflected in a pair of mirrors to create an endless effect, but his reflection is different, horrifying. Initially, it seems poor because the evil reflection has cheesy make up and doesn't hold the gun to his head in remotely the same way. Yet it escalates subtly to a stunning end and the same could be said of many of the psychological setups we're given. Transformations are also rarely single step, to keep us on the hop. Often we see the fantasy, then cut to a version with both fantasy and reality cleverly combined, then cut once more to reality.

Perhaps the most effective technical component is the editing, courtesy of Jamie Trevill. Many of these scenes are edited feverishly for effect, with cuts coming at rapid pace, not to conjure up some sense of style or to show us something new, but to disorient us so that we feel something of what Jack is feeling. While the characters are effectively equivalent, merely representing different philosophies, Jack is kept the lead throughout and we're clearly meant to see the conflict of those philosophies more through his experiences than JC's. This is successful, though I'm convinced that it would have been even more so had the focus been more equally distributed between the two characters. Paul does surprisingly well in a particularly challenging role but Nauta, who I knew only from a very different part in Transporter 2, is even better. She's not a prolific actress, as she's also a singer and model, but hopefully I'll get to see her in another challenging role before I catch up with Avalanche Sharks.

Watching The Breed and Nine Miles Down as a double bill highlights that I should be paying attention to what Adrian Paul is doing too. He's not the greatest actor in the world, but he's apparently very willing to challenge himself with difficult roles. Sure, he was outshone by his leading lady in both of these films (not to mention by the title characters in Eyeborgs), but he did interesting work in interesting material each time. While there are conventional elements in all three of these pictures, none of them are really conventional movies, even if they could each be vaguely categorised as action. Eyeborgs was ahead of its time and manages to say a lot with only a little. The Breed stands unique amongst vampire pictures as a real exploration of racial integration. Nine Miles Down is the best of the three, a searing journey to one man's psychological Hell, if not to the literal one. Put together they suggest that Paul's career is a more interesting one than we might expect, something backed up by his panels at DarkCon.

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