Before anyone gets impaled, dismembered, or disemboweled in Neil Marshall’s sophomore film, The Descent (2005), complicated emotional matrices are already embedded into the narrative and dynamics of the characters. When we first meet three of the six women we will soon become savagely intimate with, they appear to be boisterously enjoying the pleasure of each other’s company. The trio is white-water rafting, rambunctiously scaling (or conquering? white-water rafting is horrifying to me, and thus I have never learned the lexicon pertaining to it) the violent waves, their eudaemonia escalating as the danger in each crest increases. The women are not only invigorated and elated by peril, it seems, but also intertwined by it. Their profound connection is seemingly intensified by the realness of or proximity to danger. As the trio ends their adventure to meet the husband and daughter of Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) on land, there is evident tension. Something is being hidden from us. Sarah is resplendent in the enjoyment of her friends and the love of her ebullient daughter; Beth (brilliantly-steely Alex Reid) watches Sarah with a protective kindness, but when she looks to their friend Juno (Natalie Mendoza), she becomes cold and concerned, witnessing an exchange between Juno and Sarah’s husband that conveys an illicit intimacy. Juno and Beth catch glances, both disgruntledly acknowledging what the other understands, and both acknowledging Sarah’s seeming oblivion to the situation. It is established, in these few silent seconds, that unlike the physical danger the women gleefully expose themselves to, the unspoken emotional threats lurking in the fabrics of their relationships have the potential to destabilize and destroy these women—as a group, and individually.
It turns out that moments later, Sarah proves to need more defending and support than anyone might have anticipated. Driving through a serene countryside, Sarah asks her daughter about her tentative birthday party plans before portentously asking her husband why he seems distant. Perhaps thankfully, he is never able to answer—a truck in the opposing lane swerves into the family’s car, and we witness Sarah’s husband’s skull get gruesomely impaled by a steel beam before a dramatic scene cut to Sarah in a hospital bed. This abrupt, jarring jump operates as a masterful transition that determines the perception of the rest of the film. This violent transition significantly alters the quality of the film from being a straightforward—if not compelling—horror film, to a scrutiny of female psychology in the wake of trauma.
Without revealing the juicier bits (in some ways, very literally), The Descent, in simple terms, goes on to chronicle a spelunking trip gone horribly awry. Juno knowingly brings Sarah and four of their friends to a cave that is not only uncharted, but also infinitely more treacherous than any of them could possibly fathom (or be prepared for). On a fundamental level, The Descent’s premise is captivating enough, as Neil Marshall exquisitely capitalizes on a terrifying situation (being lost and the fractious fallout that transpires between friends a la The Blair Witch Project); an unbearably uncomfortable locale (that dreaded, breathtakingly tight cave); and slimy, rapacious lurkers that pokingly evoke ur-hill-people trapped without sunlight for eons (Marshall’s clever nod to one of his many inspirations, Deliverance). But The Descent is transcendent in that these elements of horror are only fundamental. They serve as a backbone for the far more horrific, and far more discombobulating premise—the infirmity of one woman’s psychology and the dissolution of relational dynamics in the throes of this dissolution.
When the film dramatically cuts to Sarah in a hospital bed after the grisly accident, the viewer watches as she rips tubes out of her arm and nose and staggers out into the hospital hallway, chasing the dream of her daughter—who also tragically perishes in the accident—sitting in front of an illuminated birthday cake. As she staggers down the abandoned hallway, the lights systematically shut off behind her one by one, enhancing the feeling of entrapment, disintegration, and psychological collapse. As the last light shuts off, both Sarah and the viewer are forced to come-to: Sarah, huddled on the floor of the hospital hallway, is being rocked in the arms of her protector, Beth, who breathlessly tells her “they’re gone, they’re both gone,” as Sarah begins to sob. The viewer has to awaken to an equally startling realization—our grasp on reality is becoming untenable. Though there is no clear “narrator” of the film, the viewer can no longer rely on the point of view that they were introduced to in the opening scene. Having been exposed to the devastation of Sarah’s unconscious psyche, the viewer is now at the behest of the permutations of an altered psyche.
When the film cuts to a year later, Sarah and Beth are driving to a cabin in the woods to meet Juno, their two friends (who are also sisters) and Juno’s adventurer-protégé Holly (Nora Jane Noone, after her fantastic role in The Magdalene Sisters) for their aforementioned spelunking trip. The viewer is given sparse details and uneasy reminders of Sarah’s instability. Characters whisper about medications, certain topics are skirted around, and the ever-steadfast Beth keeps an unwaveringly watchful eye on her friend and an unblinkingly mistrustful glare on Juno. While nothing seems particularly unreal about the women’s friendly night before their adventure, the viewer has a palpable sense of gnawing uncertainty—are the events that are about to unfold meant to be watched through the lens of a fractured, unreliable psychosis induced by trauma? How can the physical danger that the film presents be distinguished from the psychological turmoil of the woman the viewer is cinematically instructed to associate with most closely?
As the film proceeds and the true nature of the fatal danger the cave holds grows more undeniable with each savage scene, it is evident that the physical danger Juno has introduced is a metaphor for the emotional threat she unknowingly posed to Sarah at the beginning of the film. The women do not speak or interact with an emotional lexicon—their unity and connectivity is based on physical exertion and danger, and thus their issues must be addressed and resolved through risk and physical peril. Juno’s attempt at a conciliatory cave-trip—where the women could unwittingly discover their own cave, name and claim it, and thus mend the wounds that impede their dynamic—is ultimately another aggression. Juno is adventurous, a true explorer, capitalizing on and colonizing everything she wants, heedless to its impact on those around her. Sexual conquests and caving trips are one and the same for Juno—it is the exhilaration, the adrenaline of conquering, that galvanizes Juno and ultimately imperils her friends.
This imperilment compounds with Sarah’s unstable psychology, which is further exacerbated by her awareness that her friends feel the need to be vigilant of her and change their behavior around her. Sarah’s psychological trauma becomes the focal point and mechanism by which the film’s terror is expressed. As the women’s relationships with and trust for one another are tested in their futile attempts to escape the cave, the ghoulish cave-dwellers stalk them out, savagely killing the women off one by one. The creatures, who are first spotted by Sarah, seem to operate as physical manifestations of the anguish and chaos that govern Sarah’s psyche. As the women, especially Sarah, lack an emotional dialogue or any way of emotionally articulating things, violence and danger exist as their only tools of expression. In this way, the ruthless cave dwellers are literal embodiments of the decay of Sarah’s psyche and the decay of trust between the friends.
The film’s brutal conclusion, with a staggering body count (and disembodiment count), makes the viewer feel as if they have experienced the externalized, physicalized, visceral version of a psychological breakdown. Importantly, and confusingly for the viewer, the cave dwellers are theoretically animalistic and are poaching all of the women for their meat, but we only see Sarah’s friends (and not Sarah herself) meet their end. Importantly too, the women are violently killed in ways or doing things that represent intrinsic qualities in their identities, as if the film knows it’s actually working on a symbolic level. When Sarah is confronted with the truth about Juno and her inevitable death (being swarmed by rapacious cave dwellers), we realize that the scene evokes a certain sense of gory closure. Sarah is at the end of the cave when we witness Juno’s death, and Sarah emerges exhausted, gasping for air and some semblance of sanity.
The final seconds of the film call into question the entire clarity of the narrative and solidify the underlying message of the film. Not only are the traumas that haunt and besot women relentless, but the intensity of these traumas is also augmented by the fact that female experiences of trauma are often disregarded and not discussed in our society. It is noteworthy, then, that Sarah emerges from the cave alone. The film, and the chaos that the women are subjected to (Sarah in particular), operates as a metaphor for what it’s like for women to experience psychological trauma in an uncaring world. The effects of trauma lurk unseen, unattended to, and unmentioned, just like the foul cave dwellers. When they reemerge, they rend apart loved ones, terrorizing and—as The Descent graphically shows—eviscerating them. There is no better way to convey the brutal, often ineffable, anguishes women endure when they are forced to suffer alone.