Broken drags the viewer by the scruff of the neck through a world populated by damaged characters and the debauchery they employ to hide from their realities.
The premise is a relatively simple one: John (Mel Raido) is a professional musician rendered disabled from the waist down after a drug-fuelled accident; Evie (Morjana Alaoui) is his live-in carer. Where Broken excels is the extraction of intense character interactions and genuine atmosphere from this modest set-up. The viewer is coerced into an uneasy intrigue as to how the story will play out, which provides a gratifying immersive experience.
The decision to shoot in the limited environment of a single house was no doubt aided by budget constraints, but was masterfully utilised to create a claustrophobic sense of mounting tension.
The two lead characters are locked together by necessity of the script. This is where the character of John’s ex-bandmate, Dougie (Craig Conway), is written as a perfect catalyst to the plot – linking to the outside world and John’s past. Conway plays him to precision; before actions demonstrate his true nature – his demeanour, delivery and presence all put the view on guard. Intangible tension is the most powerful, especially in the first act.
Raido’s delivery of the wing-clipped hedonist managed to tread the difficult line between overacting and understating such a reversal in fortune. This was a relief, as the film would largely sink or swim on his ability to convince the audience of his situation. Although markedly different characters, there are similarities to Richard. E. Grant’s portrayal of Withnail in Withnail And I insofar as John is simultaneously detestable and endearing; whilst escaping his reality with drugs and booze.
Morjana Alaoui is a fine actress, capable of mastering the most challenging of roles, as anyone familiar with her extraordinary performance in 2008’s Martyrs will attest. Here she captivates on screen, deftly transitioning between a range of emotions and motivations, thereby conveying to perfection the intricacies of her character’s inner arc.
The dialogue was faced with some challenges which it largely managed to overcome. The nature of the characters’ situation required a manner of discourse that could, in lesser hands, veer towards cliché or excessive exposition. Rarely did this occur thanks to the superior writing and the delivery of a very capable cast. Where the dialogue excelled it was scalpel-sharp and truly masterful. In a scene where the plot necessitated the creation of parity between John and Evie’s situations, writer and director, Shaun Robert Smith, trusted himself and his actress to deliver her backstory with dialogue so perfect and descriptive that the effect created a vicarious link to her experience that was not broken for the rest of the film.
Visually the film succeeds in creating the feeling of confinement within which John is trapped. This is interspersed with some creative flourishes using mundane household items, artistically shot, that serve to create mood, much like Argento did with colours in Suspiria. Argento-esque styling was also present in some of the dream sequences in the way that stairs and mirrors were framed, dramatic outstretched hands reaching for the perpetually spinning wheel of wheelchair, uneasy vertical shots etc. This effectively broke up the essential banality of portraying John’s housebound existence.
At its core the film examines what happens to broken people who remain damaged. It correctly, and interestingly, surmises that they attract other people with unresolved issues. Ultimately Broken is an effective horror/thriller that lets these interactions play-out within a confined, insalubrious setting. Evie becomes Carl Jung’s “Wounded Healer” and eschews the drugs and booze everyone else is hiding behind; Dougie is projecting his resentment of John on to Evie; and John is masking his pain with whatever solace his can find. This creates an engaging triad, which mercifully does not resolve with Evie being sanctified or martyred (no pun intended). Instead we are shown what happens as the ripples of abuse are allowed to radiate unchecked, and the price of an individual’s personal catharsis.
There is a sense of restraint in the horrific elements of the film, certainly those wishing to find a graphic revival of Alaoui’s past will not find it here, but it is executed in a manner that exudes a palpable uncertainty – that the full horror of the situation could be unleashed at any moment. The transgressive heart of the piece comes from Conway’s delivery as Dougie continues his descent (no pun intended, again) into realising his character’s path of sadism, bitterness and self-gratification at any cost.
Sometimes art emerges at a time that feels synchronous. Society currently finds itself in the hands of people who are savagely cutting funding to those with mental and physical disabilities, and to the wider health service. The monetisation of care, and who gets it, couldn’t be more relevant, and this is the cultural atmosphere that the film is being ushered into. Broken feels like a film of our times.