Friday, April 04, 2008

The Ruins

THE RUINS (Carter Smith, 2008)

In THE RUINS best friends Amy (Jena Malone) and Stacy (Laura Ramsey) are enjoying a sun-soaked vacation in Cancun with their boyfriends Jeff (Jonathan Tucker) and Eric (Shawn Ashmore). They might be up for a little adventure if it presents itself, but otherwise the couples are content to lay on the beach and by the pool the entire time.

Along comes Mathias (Joe Anderson), a German tourist who tells them about an archeological dig at some Mayan ruins off the beaten path. Mathias plans to visit the site to find his brother, who ran off to the jungle location with a girl he met during their time in Mexico. He tells the four Americans that they're welcome to join him. Jeff, a medical student who sort of acts as though he knows what is best for everyone, has been trying to convince the others that they should see something beyond their oceanside hotel during their stay. A visit to the ruins sounds like a nice way to cap their trip, so they all agree to meet up with Mathias the next day.

Dimitri (Dimitri Baveas), a Greek tourist who ditches his drunken friends sleeping on the beach, is added to the group Mathias leads to the ruins. They hop on a bus and then pile into the back of a pickup truck that takes them several miles from town to the jungle. The entrance to the final part of the path to the ruins is obscured, but Mathias finds the way. Soon enough they are basking in the large, vine-covered structure before them; however, their architectural awe doesn't last long.

Residents of a nearby village approach them in what appears to be a theatening manner. Before they can realize what is happening, one member of the group is dead, and the remaining scramble to the top of the ruins. More villagers emerge to surround them. The natives keep a reasonable distance and do not ascend the ruins, but it is clear they will not allow the captive tourists to leave.

THE RUINS explores how people react when placed in dire circumstances. For Jeff, the thing to do is to take on the leadership role. He urges agreement to conserve their minimal supplies of food and water as much as possible. While the group panics, Jeff assures everyone that Dimitri's friends, who were given a copy of the map to the ruins, will surely come looking for them in a day's time when he doesn't return. They just have to wait out the situation for a night. He reminds them that this sort of thing doesn't happen to Americans; however, like any leader's words without standing, Jeff's are cold comfort to them as bad developments tip over like a line of dominoes.

The nifty thing about THE RUINS is that Jeff may be less inhibited when it comes to making choices, but it doesn't mean his actions are correct. His response to fear is commonly accepted as heroic and decisive, but his pigheaded boldness may be as responsible for multiplying the group's problems as anything. Sometimes not having an answer is less dangerous.

Scott B. Smith wrote the novel and screenplay for THE RUINS. He also did the same for A SIMPLE PLAN, the fine Sam Raimi-directed thriller in which bad decisions snowball. Where A SIMPLE PLAN focused on whether a victimless crime is moral, THE RUINS tests the characters' mettle when confronted with fear of the unknown. Although THE RUINS isn't explicity about post-9/11 issues, it can function as a potent statement of how collective fear leads to enormous damage to individuals and society as a whole.

Subtext aside, THE RUINS is a stripped down genre exercise that goes about its business with brutal efficiency. Dread hovers over the situation like cumulonimbus clouds. Director Carter Smith extracts tension by virtue of permitting the tension to sit there unabated. No relief is in sight, especially with the violent scenes that induce frequent squirms.

A better film would have fleshed out the characters more. As it is, all behave about the same except for Jeff. The lack of explanations in THE RUINS may prove unsatisfying to some, but the unknown is often more terrifying than the tangible. Such are the wages of fear.

Grade: B-

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