Talk about grueling; Eden Lake makes Straw Dogs look like a Frankie and Annette double feature. Writer-director James Watkins (The Woman in Black) methodically stokes the fear furnace until the tension is nearly unbearable—but you don’t dare look away.
By firmly establishing his protagonists as something more than pale quaking stereotypes, Watkins succeeds where Eli Roth and James Wan fall short; namely giving the viewer a good reason to be shocked and horrified about the cruelties inflicted on them.
In search of a romantic weekend, Steve (Michael Fassbender) and his girlfriend Jenny (Kelly Reilly) drive way out to hell and gone in the English countryside to camp on a secluded beach that’s about to become the centerpiece of a condo development. The couple incurs the wrath of local juvenile delinquents on BMX bikes and things rapidly spin out of control. Sure, it’s all a big joke, till someone gets hurt—or in this case, killed.
While Steve and Jenny definitely do not deserve their eventual fates, it can be rightly said that the awful shit pit they land in is due mostly to Steve being a colossal asshole who should have just walked away before everything went to hell. He has several chances to do so, but his idiotic pride won’t let him.
Eden Lake should look familiar: the plot is nearly identical to The Strangers (or Deliverance, The Hills Have Eyes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Wrong Turn, for that matter). Above all else, never ever pitch your tent in an isolated rural area, especially after witnessing the casual cruelty of the locals.
But there is a critical difference. There’s no explanation for the amorality and astonishing lack of empathy on the part of the teens in The Strangers. Boredom maybe? Gangsta rap? Point and shoot video games? Guess we’ll never know.
In Watkins’ film, the young miscreants are squarely under the sway of Brett (Jack O’Connell), the group’s psychotic Alpha male, who, like any good tyrant, whittles away his subjects’ humanity with bullying and threats. (I kept thinking of African child soldiers, forced under impossible pressure into remorseless killers.)
Each nightmarish escalation of the action is presented as a transgression that could have been avoided, but also as a disturbingly believable development, considering the hellish circumstances the characters find themselves in. And that is why Eden Lake is so damn terrifying and transfixing.