Just when you thought nothing new could be done with the undead, “The Cured” pulls off a fresh take on zombie terrain. Irish writer-director David Freyne’s impressive first feature lends the dimension of political allegory that recently deceased subgenre king George Romero brought to his many “Dead” films, albeit in a somewhat subtler fashion. The result effectively plays more as serious drama than as horror thriller, despite key elements of the latter. With Ellen Page offering an additional lure for stateside audiences, this imperfect but compelling work has strong prospects if it can avoid the often hazardous theatrical gap between art house and mainstream audiences.
Opening text informs us that the “Maze virus” began sweeping Europe some years before, inducing “violent psychosis” and cannibalistic hunger among its victims. A cure was found (apparently by Paula Malcolmson’s Dr. Joan Lyons), but one-quarter of those infected remain “Resistants,” immune to its effect. The luckier majority are haunted by undiluted memories of what they saw and did while animalistic savages — and many of those who survived uninfected cannot forgive them, no matter that the afflicted had no control over themselves. A first and second “wave” of such societal re-integrations apparently had disastrous consequences. Lyons and the government insist the cure has now been perfected. But a third wave of “the Cured” are being released to face public fear, prejudice and attacks.
Among them is young Senan (Sam Keeley), whose nightmare-addled guilt is all the worse for the fact that he remembers killing and devouring his brother, Luke. He can’t bring himself to share the knowledge with the latter’s widow, Abbie (Page), an American journalist who’s stayed in Dublin to raise their child as Irish. (It’s also hinted that she may be stuck here due to strict U.S. contagion-prevention laws.) She’s invited Senan to stay with them both, to start his life afresh after four years in rabid hell.
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That puts him in a better position than most of his kind, who for lack of any such offers, get housed in guarded dormitories vulnerable to angry picketers and potential vigilantes. Particularly resenting this lowly status is Conor (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), a former barrister with political aspirations who’s been rejected by his upper-class family and can get no job higher than janitor. He has a friendship with Senan he’s unwilling to let go of — and it takes a while for Freyne’s script to reveal just how disturbingly deep their past association goes. In the present tense, Conor turns his discontent into a sort of extremist underground political movement, riling up the Cured to acts that seem designed simply to discourage their public abuse but take on increasingly terroristic characteristics.
With the morally conflicted Senan and investigating Abbie caught up against their will, Conor launches a full-on insurrection that brings the hitherto primarily broody (albeit with jolts of mostly flashback-enclosed violence) film to a harrowing action climax.
Freyne’s thoughtful script is least successful in charting Conor’s rise to a sort of cult demagoguery; it seems to happen too fast and against excessive military-police odds. (It’s also a bit troubling that the air of homoerotic menace infusing Senan and Conor’s scenes together lends the latter character a literally, lethally “predatory homosexual” tinge.) “The Cured” works as a political allegory one can interpret in many ways, as its conceptual outline can be read as commentary on any current worldwide debates about religion, race and immigration, not to mention Ireland’s own longtime Troubles.
But mostly it plays as a somber drama about grief, guilt and self-loathing, with both lead figures shell-shocked in their way. Page’s muted performance, so different from her concurrent Toronto one in “My Days of Mercy,” takes pains not to exude any “guest Hollywood star” quality. She’s very good while deferring primary focus to Keeley, whose sensitive presence must convey a lot of roiling emotion without much dialogue in a close-mouthed role. Both leads have excellent chemistry with Oscar Nolan, the child actor who plays nephew Cillian. Vaughan-Lawlor summons appropriate intensity in his more schematic part, while Malcolmson, Stuart Graham and others provide strong support turns.
A tone at once mournful and urgent is skillfully struck by Freyne as director, whose modestly scaled but astute assembly is highlighted by Piers McGrail’s grungy yet handsome location shooting and a solid score from Rory Friers and Naill Kennedy.