Patrice Laliberté’s The Decline is a well-executed thriller with one of my favorite genre structures, where a sudden, unexpected-but-plausible event decisively ends the characters’ status quo and creates a conflict that has to be dealt with immediately. There’s an inherent dramatic snap to situations where characters are forced to make choices that, one way or another, will change their lives. The film handles it in a simple, straightforward way that, despite the arguable lack of surprises, gets some additional weight from how inevitably it all unfolds.
The film–set in an evocative, wintry Nord-du-Québec–also chooses an inherently interesting setup. Charismatic, paternal Alain runs a camp where fellow survivalists–already devoted to his YouTube videos on disaster prep–can spend several days learning about trapping, greenhouses, solar power, and, of course, how to defend their property with lethal force. Alain has a weathered kind of charm, and Réal Bossé plays him with a matter-of-fact, unshowy competence and a natural extroversion. It’s often hard to create believably compelling leaders, but The Decline does it deftly. You can see why people come to him and why they want his approval … and why even the more left-leaning survivalists say nothing when he summons visions of a nightmarish future where “migrants with machetes” threaten everything they hold dear.
The other characters are sketched out with the same effective economy; they’re not richly developed by any means, but there’s a real utility to the writing and performances. It doesn’t take us long to realize that one of the campers is, at heart, simply a suburban dad, someone who may daydream about the collapse of civilization but who is reflexively, innately part of it all the same. An elliptical answer about military service suggests a character’s arc long before it really comes to the surface. Squeamishness about skinning a rabbit with one’s bare hands, snapping at someone for overusing a completely renewable resource … all the details are well-chosen to contribute to our understanding of who these people are and who they might become before the end.
Needless to say, something at Alain’s camp goes horribly wrong. (The film has a definite gift for sudden, shocking moments that feel more like attacks than jump scares.) The characters can’t agree on how to handle it, and the stakes are too high for there to be a neutral, “live and let live” way out of the dilemma. A clash is inevitable. It’s also revealing, particularly of how the characters subconsciously perceive the world they live in. They all spend a lot of time trying to imagine how to deal with a social collapse, and then they’re treated to a miniature one … and their projections and fantasies don’t necessarily match their actions, and their ideals, when they’re actually lived out right in front of them, can suddenly seem appalling rather than appealing.
The Decline is streaming on Netflix.