Reviewed by: David Graham

French-Canadian border patrol nightmare Territories is a discomfortingly relevant brand of horror; a psychological headfuck mining recent political concerns for its nerve-fraying premise. It's the sort of film that avoids obvious metaphor and allegory to work on a very literal level, taking America's treatment of prisoners of war as a basis for its depiction of man's inhumanity to man. The 'trials' its central characters endure are all the more horrific for being entirely unjustified, but Olivier Abbou's arresting debut digs deeper to offer up an investigation into how such sanctioned abuse can affect those inflicting it, leading to deadly roleplay as a cathartic form of twisted therapy.

A carload of amiable youths returning to the US is accosted by a couple of power-hungry patrolmen, their situation going from bad to worse as unfounded allegations fly and tensions simmer over into violence. Suspense builds with the constant barking of their dog, the discovery of an illicit substance leading to some uncomfortably close inspection. They are taken into custody, but not the kind that allows them a call home: their captors turn out to be intent on a different kind of punishment, where the psychological torture is worse than any physical pain they could hope to endure.

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Territories is apparently going to be renamed Checkpoint for its UK release, but its original title gives better indications of director Olivier Abbou's intentions. Taking its cue from perhaps the most powerful horror film of recent years, Martyrs, this is a gruelling experience that forces the audience to look at events in today's 'liberated' world and consider the cost for those directly involved. Parallels to Guantanamo Bay are specifically drawn, and the film takes us through the stages of suffering that notorious facility inflicted on its detainees. To its credit, the film also examines those perpetrating the punishment, throwing up some uneasy insights into their frame of mind.

The plot references Frankenstein in the somewhat tragic relationship between creator and creature; the US government is shown to have repeatedly dumped this generation of war-hardened veterans it has engineered. There are also parallels to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, not only in the backwoods setting and the dysfunctional 'family' dynamic, but in the way the film reveals redundancy to be such a damaging force.

The acting is uniformly excellent, with the detained convincingly cycling through believable emotional states, from defiance to defeat. An early escape attempt is thrillingly mounted, the build-up to its exciting execution expertly handled, the pay-off shattering for how nearly it is successful. Later, moments of survival-motivated admission are especially harrowing, where truth is left uneasily ambiguous.

The captors are also rendered as layered characters both threatening and pathetic, Roc LaFortune giving a particularly nuanced performance as the dominant 'officer'. There are intriguingly unexplained homoerotic currents in his Of Mice And Men-echoing relationship with his live-in partner, their domestic bliss spilling into aggression at the drop of a hat. Abbou manages to make them sympathetic by forcing us to read between the lines, avoiding patronising exposition in favour of detailed characterisation. An unexpected figure drifts into the film late in the game, adding another layer of complexity and emotional investment to the climax, veteran character actor Stephen Shellen almost stealing the film from under everyone's noses.

Some will find fault in the narrative's occasional abandonment of the victims; for lengthy spells in the mid-section, their plight is pushed into the background to allow us to eavesdrop on the torturers. This functions as a crafty way to play with the audience's imagination, left to wonder what the protagonists must be going through and if they will manage to survive. This can also be frustrating, though, when the emphasis of the film changes so completely and unexpectedly, the story settling into more stereotypical thriller conventions.

But overall, it is debut director Olivier Abbou's unflinching handling of the traumatic subject matter that stands out, managing to be thought-provoking without being overbearing with his message, right up to the crushingly bleak denouement. Territories isn't as violent as you might expect, and it even manages to throw in some unsettlingly cruel humour, but it is a deeply upsetting experience that transcends simple 'torture porn' pigeonholing as well as predictable politicized posturing. A difficult watch but a worthwhile one.

Reviewed on: 31 Mar 2011
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Three American friends returning from a trip are arrested at customs and taken to a strange backwoods camp where they suddenly realise their lives are on the line.
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Director: Olivier Abbou

Writer: Olivier Abbou, Thibault Lang Willar

Starring: Roc LaFortune, Sean Devine, Nicole Leroux

Year: 2010

Runtime: 110 minutes

Country: France, Canada


Glasgow 2011

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