Cribbing respectfully from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and directed with the sterling sense of formal craftsmanship that is fast becoming Sean Ellis’ trademark, “The Broken” is a brooding, atmospheric exercise in upscale psychological horror. If it fails to be much more than an exercise, that’s because this ice-cold thriller, about a woman who suspects she’s being followed around London by a murderous doppelganger, is less interested in reinventing the genre than cleverly riffing on it. But there are enough nerve-shattering moments (and occasional gratuitous shocks) here to ensure theatrical play far beyond Euro shores.
A significant departure from his charmingly slick romantic comedy “Cashback,” “Broken” offers further proof that writer-director Ellis’ technical dexterity may outweigh his talent for coming up with fresh material. But it’s hard to be too disappointed with a film that so effectively sustains a throughline of dread, or that manages to wink at its audience without devolving into outright horror parody. When our heroine passes a flashlight beam over a dark attic and a clown’s head pops briefly into view, the film wisely doesn’t belabor the moment.
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It takes British beauty Gina McVey (“300’s” Lena Headey) a long time to reach that attic. But there’s already something sinister in the cold London air one evening when Gina’s dinner with her family — her b.f. Stefan (French up-and-comer Melvil Poupaud), her American expat dad (Richard Jenkins), her brother Daniel (Asier Newman) and his wife Kate (Michelle Duncan) — is disrupted by a mirror that breaks of its own accord.
The next day, after leaving the hospital where she works as a radiologist, Gina is startled to see someone who looks exactly like her. Surprised, she follows her mysterious twin back to an unfamiliar apartment, but their encounter (if they have one) is left teasingly offscreen. Shortly afterward, Gina is driving her red Jeep Cherokee, distracted by what she’s just seen, and has a violent head-on collision with another vehicle.
Gina goes to stay with Stefan while she recovers, but is haunted by nightmares (and nightmares-within-nightmares) and her lover’s suddenly cold behavior. There’s worse to come, of course; suffice it to say that Ellis soon has the viewer on edge every time the camera goes near a mirror or reflective surface, visualizing the film’s latent metaphor about the fear of the self.
While it contains a few cheap scares, “The Broken’s” most indelible frights are agonizingly slow to build, and predicated on a sense of the characters’ decency and vulnerability in a way few thrillers are. If the twisty conclusion inevitably leaves the viewer with logic and continuity questions, it seems a small price to pay for a movie skilled enough to reference the shower scene in “Psycho” without embarrassing itself.
Tech credits are impeccable, particularly the aces sound work and Angus Hudson’s widescreen cinematography, capturing London at its grimmest and most foreboding. Frequent flashbacks to the car accident, replayed from multiple angles, verge on show-offy.