The Day (2011)
Shawn Ashmore (Adam), Ashley Bell (Mary), Dominic Monaghan (Rick), Michael Eklund (Father), Cory Hardrict (Henson), Shannyn Sossamon (Shanon)
Extinction event of unknown origin.
“A group of five people working to stay alive in a post-apocalyptic future discover what they think is a safe, abandoned farmhouse, but they soon find themselves fighting to stay alive as a gang of bloodthirsty predators attack.” – Taken from IMDb.com.
The vast majority of doomsday stories deal with the fantastic and it’s really no surprise why. If you’re writing a story about the downfall of mankind, you might as well go for broke and put a bunch of monsters and crazy technology in there too. But there is something to be said about a story where the survivors are average people with normal leftover technology and the only enemies are other people. The cause of the end of civilization in The Day is never mentioned or explained. Most of the vegetation seems to have died and a character mentions in passing that she hasn’t seen or heard even a bird in over two years. Most remaining groups have apparently turned to cannibalism, forming clans that hunt and trap outsiders to subsist on. Our protagonists are a group of five: childhood friends Hensen, Rick, and Adam (Cory Herdrict, Dominic Monaghan, and Shawn Ashmore), longtime traveling companion Shannon (Shannyn Sossamon), and stone-faced newcomer Mary (Ashley Bell). They live off what they can forage and are constantly moving so as to reduce their chances of being caught by the clans.
Unfortunately the group is forced to seek shelter from the rain because Hensen is sick, but their luck looks up when they happen upon an old abandoned house on a hillside. It’s here that we learn a bit about our characters. Rick is still clinging to the hope that this whole doomsday thing will pass and is carrying around two jars full of seeds (he has nicknamed them “Hope” and “Faith”) that he plans to plant when he one day finds a safe place to settle down. For the most part Hensen and Shannon (more on her in a moment) seem to be buying into his idealism even though they probably don’t hold out a lot of hope. Adam is still reeling from the disappearance (and probable death) of his wife and daughter at the hands of a mysterious assailant (or assailants, most likely cannibals) years before. He’s a lot more pessimistic than the other others (excepting Mary) and is visibly annoyed by Rick’s eternally sunny disposition. If there is any reason he still pushes on it’s likely the safety of his friends and a desire to get revenge by killing any clan members he finds. Shannon is a bit of a social barnacle, she has latched onto our trio (she appears to be in a relationship with Rick) and seems pretty hostile to outsiders if her treatment of Mary is any indication. Mary is a quiet woman with a thousand-yard stare and a seemingly permanent scowl, but Shannon’s ultimatum that she act a little nicer or shove off instantly decides for the audience which of our heroines we’ll be rooting for later on.
As the storm passes, Rick decides that Hensen needs more time to rest; a very controversial choice by the rest of the group. Eventually it is agreed that Mary and Shannon will go out and attempt to trap an animal while Andy and Rick check the house for supplies. The men find a supply of canned food that turns out to be a trap, locking them in the basement while Mary is attacked by a man as she tries to wash up in a stream. Now they’re stuck defending the house with one person out of commission, one sick and weak, and less than 50 rounds of ammunition between them as night sets in and an entire clan of cannibals surround them. As if things couldn’t get anymore messed up, it turns out Mary isn’t who she says she is.
Before I get into what this movie is really about, let me just gush about it for a bit. The Day is a wonderful movie and I fell in love with it almost immediately, I kept expecting it to fall apart and ruin itself but it remained perfect until the ending credits and I don’t get to say that about a lot of things. It’s one of the few movies I’ve ever seen that lived up to my expectations based on seeing the trailer for a number of reasons.
Reason 1: Siege! – Siege movies are one of my fetishes, almost as much as post-apocalyptic movies and a it’s a “never fails” selling point for me. When a movie is bad, it’s elevated by a siege framework and when it’s already good it’s elevated even more.
Reason 2: It’s got class! – Much has been made of The Day’s color scheme, or rather its lack thereof. It’s not quite black-and-white, certain colors bleed though in a severely muted state, and many of the movie’s detractors ruled this as pretentious (because apparently attempting to be artistic is a big no-no if you have a WWE logo stenciled on your opening credits). I humbly invite those detractors to partake of this giant bowl of dicks that I have kindly provided for their consumption. The color scheme fits the the tone and setting of the movie perfectly and it really brings across the grime and desolation that the characters have become accustomed to. I expect this may also have been a stylistic choice on the part of the director to pay homage to The Night of the Living Dead, to which this movie owes a great debt. The only time when the pseudo black-and-white becomes problematic is when the characters go outside briefly at the climax and it’s very difficult to tell what the hell is happening.
Admittedly the cameraman does seem to have been operating the camera with one pinky haughtily extended, at times. Particularly early on there are times where it felt like I was watching a German expressionist movie. I’m a big detractor of wanky camera tricks but these are restrained enough to not be distracting and just class the film up a bit without descending into “I went to film school, you guys” Spike Lee-esque fuckery.
Reason 3: Brutality! – It’s amazing how many doomsday movies pull their punches when it comes to showing the consequences of a lawless society of selfish kill-or-be-killed opportunists. I’m not talking about graphic violence either; as much as I enjoy a good gore set-piece I appreciate not always having to drench the lens in blood. What I’m talking about is a willingness to show the darker side of humanity and show that even your heroes are capable of awful things. A Boy and His Dog did this by making its hero an unrepentant rapist but there are less extreme ways to get the point across.
After the crew’s first encounter with the cannibals it’s revealed that Mary is one too. She doesn’t belong to the group that’s trying to kill them, but the brand on her inner thigh is a mark used by the clans to identify them to each other. The group ties her up and tries to get information from her, to which she just glares at them until Adam loses his shit and decides to exorcise his personal demons on her. He runs across the room and punches her in the face so hard that it knocks her chair over and he precedes to continue hitting her in the head, hard. This is not a terribly bloody scene and Ashley Bell doesn’t come out of it with her face looking like hamburger as it probably should considering the beating her character just took, because it’s not about spectacle. This is about showing how this world has made monsters out of everyone, even seemingly nice-guy Adam (the lead-up to this beating seems to indicate that Adam will be the first to forgive her and tell the others to lay off so the savagery of what follows is especially harrowing). Even when the scene lets in a bit of light torture that toes the line of good taste it stops just before it gets too lurid. Few movies seem to stare into the abyss this hard.
Reason 4: Ashley Bell! – There isn’t a weak link to this cast: Shawn Ashmore and Dominic Monaghan remain versatile character actors, the rest of the cast is pretty good, but they all pale in comparison to the demigoddess (and my personal spirit animal) Ashley Bell. On paper Mary sounds ridiculous, a petite little blonde in a flower-print sun dress with knee and elbow pads and a thousand yard state. Yet from the moment you see her in this attire you automatically know that this is the character who is going to wreck shit up. I can’t put into words how amazingly cool and iconic she manages to look in this frankly absurd wardrobe.
The interesting thing about Mary is that her character isn’t written in the way a woman is typically written. You could easily give the character a different name and have a man play her and there would be no change to the plot. Mary is Frank Castle, Richard B. Riddick, Harry Callahan, and John Rambo and Ashley Bell plays it so well that you don’t even question the notion. Mary easily could’ve been a stock badass but beneath that perma-scowl you see her experience fear, regret, sorrow, acceptance, friendship, and even tenderness without losing that steely attitude that makes the character so effortlessly cool. I know it seems like I’m talking more about the character than the actress behind it, but the only reason all these aspects of the character work is because Bell is so talented.
She’s even allowed to be physically unappealing and ugly! That seems like a backhanded compliment, but think of how many leading women get to look even slightly unappealing in any media you’ve seen as opposed to how generally disheveled and slovenly even the most handsome actor is allowed to look in the right context. The movie even sort of pokes fun at conventions when Mary strips to her underwear to wash her dress; there’s no glamor to it, she’s all grime and ropy muscle and the shot is so utilitarian and impartial that it practically dares you to find some sex appeal in her sweat stained underwear and pale malnourished frame. Bell tends to play rather girlish and pretty characters even in her more interesting roles and Mary is the most scantily clad in the cast, but the way she frowns to bring out the lines on her face, her generally dirty and sickly appearance, and the way her clothing hangs off of her make her a pretty interesting subversion of the kick-ass sexy heroine trope.
So enough ass-kissing, what is The Day really about? It’s about how poisonous revenge is. This is the part where I go into spoiler territory so precede at your own risk.
With the exception of Rick, who dies at the very beginning before all the nastiness really goes down, the plot focuses on how each character deals with their own desire to get back at those who have wronged them. Let’s go back to that scene I mentioned above where Adam beats the hell out of Mary. That scene is extremely repugnant and very difficult to watch, and he ends it by cutting her cannibal brand off her thigh with a knife and trying to make her eat it. He then, with no sense of irony, tells her that nothing she can ever do will redeem her for her actions. He doesn’t see that he’s being every bit as vile and repugnant as she likely was in her life in the clan or that his friends are so disgusted with his actions that they’re offering to kill her just so that they don’t have to watch anymore. He doesn’t even seem to care that each second he wastes torturing Mary is a minute that the cannibals have to prepare to siege the house. All he knows is that she’s one of “those people” who hurt his family and he is going to make her pay. It was likely this dehumanization of the “other” that allowed people like Mary’s clan and the group of cannibals currently pursuing them to feel no guilt in killing and eating their fellow man to survive. Adam’s lusting for justice has made him as much of a monster as Mary or any of the cannibals, including the ones who hurt his family.
Shannon is looking for revenge for the death of Rick, and has resolved that Mary will die by sunrise (whether she kills off all the cannibals or not). It’s kind of understandable but it seems to be built on her dislike of Mary from earlier in the movie, and her constant claims of how much better a person she is than Mary makes her seem petty and insecure. It’s her selfish and unforgiving nature that proves to be her undoing: She’s so busy tearing down Mary during the siege that she kills the cannibal leader’s young son. Later Shannon secretly unloads Mary’s shotgun before she goes outside to confront the last of the cannibals, when she reveals it to Adam he abandon her so that he can go help Mary, which makes Shannon easy pickings for the dead child’s sister who ambushes her in the woods and kills her.
Hensen handles vengeance better than the rest of the group. He tries his hand at torturing Mary but it’s pretty clear he doesn’t like the way it makes him feel. He ultimately stops Adam from going even further than he already has. When Mary shows remorse for her past life and promises to help them survive the night, he seems to believe her. Aside from Rick, Hensen is really the movie’s conscience.
As for Mary; revenge is pretty much her entire raison d’etre. Dehumanization caused groups of people to become man-hunters and Mary’s awakening comes when it becomes personal. Her twelve-year-old sister breaks her leg in such a way that it can’t be set. Her clan, rather than allowing her to die naturally and burying her, slits her throat and butchers her for meat. Mary’s realization that all the people they kill mean something to someone causes her to kill all her fellow clan members in their sleep and set out on her own.
It’s not specifically spelled out, but little moments lead me to believe that Mary is mainly with the group because she knows that a group is more likely to attract other clans and she wants to kill as many as she can. She’s the one who sweeps the house (including the basement) and it seems likely that she would have noticed the trap down there, she even does something specifically to anger the rest of the clan later on. I didn’t get the impression that her traveling companions were more than a means to an end and her tearful confession that she’s a monster worthy of nothing but death seemed to be based on more than the deeds of her distant past. It’s in the movie’s final moments as Mary and Adam rest outside the burning house, surrounded by corpses that she truly starts on her path to redemption. Adam came back for her and he assures her this is her big second chance, she seems genuinely touched by his forgiveness and assuages his guilt at being unable to protect his family by telling him that it doesn’t matter because they knew he loved them and he protected them for as long as he could.
The movie’s thesis statement seems to be in the last shot as Mary packs Rick’s seeds in her bag and heads down the road. The lead cannibal’s daughter follows on her heels and Mary pauses to allow her to join her. The girl goes to attack Mary and she lops her head off with a machete. Hatred is a poison, grudges are deadly, and an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. Hope can give you a reason to live but on its own it’s worth nothing, you still have to be strong to survive.
NEXT TIME ON DOOMSDAY REELS
“Even dogs should not be forced to live like dogs.”