Escaping human society is one thing, human nature quite another in “The Decline.” The Canadian thriller, available exclusively through Netflix, offers a modicum of timeliness for U.S. viewers who’ve coped with the coronavirus crisis by patronizing gun stores en masse: This fiction offers a sort of “how not to” in terms of locked ’n’ loaded response to civilization’s potential meltdown, as a group of survivalists discover they’ll be lucky to survive each other.
A first feature for director Patrice Laliberté and several of his principal collaborators, “The Decline” is lean, credible and well-crafted, even if it never quite makes the leap from efficient suspense machine to something more memorable. Enthusiasm in the States may be tempered by the fact that Netflix’s default English dubbing (several soundtrack languages are available) tends to render the dialogue stilted and unconvincing. For those who can handle subtitles, the film definitely plays better in the original French, minus any slight disconnect between the actors’ lips and words.
The prologue is a red herring: In the middle of the night, Montreal suburbanite Antoine (Guillaume Laurin) packs his young family into their car to flee the city. But it turns out this is simply a dress rehearsal to ensure nuclear-unit preparedness should war, epidemic or general societal collapse necessitate such a fast exit.
He’s not the only person anticipating that kind of grim eventuality, as we realize when Antoine gets a last-minute invitation to join a sort of survivalist training camp in Quebec’s Laurentian mountain region. Driving to the already-remote designated meeting spot, he’s promptly blindfolded by organizer Alain (Réal Bossé), then he and his gear are taken by snowmobile to the actual site. There, pleasant-enough yet all-business loner Alain has duly steeled himself for any apocalypse: His 500 hilltop acres are kitted out with ample living quarters, solar panels, stockpiled fuel, livestock, a greenhouse, wild-game snares and scattered booby traps designed to repel (or worse) any human intruders.
Alain is among half a dozen invited participants this weekend, including François (Marc-André Grondin), Anna (Marilyn Castonguay) and Sebastien (Guillaume Cyr). Overall they’re a fairly genial bunch, whose concerns over the future run a gamut from fears of climate-change refugee invasions (something we’ve already heard discussed on the radio) to “deep state” paranoia. The only potential wacko is David (Marc Beaupré), a paramilitary type a little over-eager for any chance of self-defense. But he doesn’t actually seem as capable in that regard as the cooler-headed Rachel (Marie-Evelyne Lessard), a quietly tough actual ex-military officer.
Perhaps auditioning possible long-term additions to his self-sufficient fiefdom, Alain runs the visitors through various exercises over the weekend’s course, from maintenance chores to bootcamp-type drills. They’re also called upon to handle weaponry, including explosives. Just past the half-hour point here, one such task goes horribly wrong.
The resulting fatality is clearly an accident — but opinions are sharply divided on whether the authorities should be notified, as Alain (and a now-fully-triggered David) does not want this well-armed hideaway undone by accusations of manslaughter or “domestic terrorism,” let alone potential jail stints. Tensions rapidly escalate, until by the film’s second half it’s become a hunters-vs.-hunted thriller with two camps chasing one another across the snowy wilderness.
All this is briskly handled, the solid cast etching plausible (if not particularly depthed) characters amid strong-enough suspense that arguably peaks with a perilous crossing of a not-so-stably-frozen river.
But as its herd is dramatically thinned, “The Decline” doesn’t quite save the strongest material for last. A prolonged climactic standoff, while handled with sufficient skill, isn’t necessarily between the two figures most satisfyingly opposed to one another, and the emotional stakes thus seem a bit reduced.
Flirting with hot-button political issues without actually taking a position on them, “The Decline” is a violent thriller that ultimately may be a tad too neutral in various ways to register as more than a disposably entertaining eighty-odd minutes. Still, its competence is nothing to sneeze at, and there are incidental pleasures in the modest but confident overall packaging, not least d.p. Christophe Dalpe’s widescreen lensing of the very handsome wintertime environs.