Published Apr 06, 2020Usually viewed as the kind of eccentric subculture encountered in Louis Theroux documentaries or National Geographic reality shows, doomsday preppers could now be due a reappraisal, particularly as the last month or so has seen their apocalyptic mindset go mainstream.
Although The Decline (Jusqu'au déclin in French; this is Netflix's first French-Canadian production) was completed long before Covid-19 even made it out of Wuhan, recent events have given its characters, a disparate group of survivalists, more credibility than writer/director Patrice Laliberté could possibly have intended.
That's not to say that this film presents their fears as entirely irrational. Just as real as our current global pandemic, but slightly more distant, the impending climate catastrophe is their main cause of concern, in a timely but probably not-so-welcome reminder that after all this is over, there might be worse to come.
Heading out to a remote location in the snowy Quebec countryside, Antoine (Guillaume Laurin) joins other amateur survivalists readying themselves for society's collapse with Alain (Réal Bossé), an older prepper they know from his popular online videos. As the group settle into Alain's cabin in the woods, which is stocked with various weapons and surrounded by trails that he hints might be a little too well-defended for casual strolls, you'd be naive to expect this particular training program to end with a 100 percent pass rate. Nevertheless, The Decline does a good job of building tension before things inevitably start to go south.
Although they're only roughly sketched and have practically no backstory provided, this small group of characters mostly evade stereotypes, with some solid performances hinting at the unspoken psychological motivations behind their choice to isolate themselves and prepare for the worst with a group of strangers. Laliberté's unshowy, naturalistic aesthetic is also effective at giving life to what could have been a cliché setup, although this is occasionally undercut by an unsubtle, overly declarative score that seems borrowed from an action movie of a much larger scale.
The Decline's key strength is the clinical efficiency of its storytelling, particularly in the second half. Shifts in gear are triggered by a number of brutally abrupt events as the action takes on an exciting immediacy, which mostly compensates for our lack of emotional investment in any of the characters. However, it's unlikely that this shock factor will hold up to multiple repeat viewings, and it's slightly disappointing to see the film abandon some of the interesting thematic ideas and narrative strands that are introduced early on.
As much as The Decline's preppers want to be able to defend their loved ones when the time comes, it's clear that they're also trying to prove something to themselves in the present. Affirming what countless end-of-days sci-fi movies have taught us, the film suggests that human nature can be just as deadly as any apocalyptic event, real or imagined. At a time when we're seeing many thousands of preventable deaths as a result of widespread indifference to medical warnings, this message that we have nothing to fear but fear itself is perhaps not the most appropriate one. But in what's left of our society after the immediate effects of coronavirus have subsided, it will definitely be an idea worth hanging on to.