Browsing through the Netflix instant streaming queue (under the “horror” section, of course) last night, I came across a rather nifty, if ultimately unsettling (though not for any “gory” or “violent” reason — as far as blood n’ guts go, this is a pretty tame affair) little British flick called The Expelled which saw release on DVD and Blu-Ray here in the US in 2012 after generating some fairly positive buzz in its native land under its original title, F, back in 2010. I’d read about it a bit here and there and thought it sounded interesting enough to give a go, and I’m generally pleased that I did, even though I do have some rather major reservations about the whole thing, so sit back for a minute and allow me to explain why I liked the film even if I find its message and overall tone to be — well, dubious at best.
First off, let’s get one thing out of the way real quick : The Expelled is nothing like what you or I might call a “slasher” film, even though it’s been marketed as such Stateside. It’s many things — a complex character study: a well-acted, well-directed, well-paced thriller; a tense, effective, and disturbing psychodrama; a fairly convincing piece of right-wing cultural propaganda — but it’s most definitely not a “slasher” flick.
The plot centers around the tragic fate of one Robert Anderson (veteran English character actor David Schofield, who turns in a bravura performance), a high school teacher who finds his “old-school” methods of discipline, including giving kids a failing grade when they deserve it, to be , well — not exactly in line with modern teaching principles, at least as far as his school administrators are concerned.
When a student hits him in the face one day, he finds himself excused for a quick sabbatical whereupon he descends into a spiral of alcoholic despair that finally hits rock bottom when his wife, a fellow teacher, bails out on him and takes his daughter, a student at their school, with her. When Robert’s finally cleared to return to work, he’s a disheveled mess who’s clearly too shell-shocked to keep the kids in his classroom in line anymore. In short, he’s a hollow shell of a man who’s hanging onto his job by the slimmest of threads and gets no respect from either his students or his colleagues.
That’s all bad enough, but when some “hoodie”-wearing delinquent youths decide to lay siege to the school after hours one day, Robert’s the only one who suspects anything might be amiss, and of course, no one on staff — from the security guards to his fellow teachers to the administration — will heed his warnings until it’s far too late and all their lives are at risk.
Should’ve listened to the drunk guy after all, huh?
Writer/director Johannes Roberts (not exactly the most British of names, I grant you) does an expert job of amping up the tension at deliberate intervals and really setting the stage for a good old-fashioned potboiler of a flick, and at a brisk 79 minutes the story moves at an almost relentless clip that keeps you glued to the screen. The menace seems as real as our reluctant hero’s slow-burn psychological death spiral, and all in all you’ve gotta hand it to him for proving that craftsmanship still trumps good intentions as far as making quality cinema goes. This is a goddamn well made movie.
But wait— what was it I just obliquely hinted to as far as The Expelled‘s intentions go? And what exactly did I mean when I called this “a fairly convincing piece of right-wing cultural propaganda” ? I’m glad you asked —
Let’s face it, the younger generation has always scared the older one to death. How could it be any other way? These are our fucking replacements on planet Earth, after all — a living, breathing reminder that our days are numbered and that everything’s gonna go on without us once we’re gone. The fashion, music, dialect, hobbies, etc. that the kids embrace are all convenient scapegoats for the oldsters’ angst , sure, but it’s what they actually represent — namely the future itself — that really scares the bejeezus out of the silver-haired crowd. The world keeps changing and evolving around us, and at some point we just can’t keep up with it all anymore, it’s only natural, but what’s frightening to many is the idea that society just plain doesn’t need us to keep up with it in order to continue trudging along on its merry little way. We’re surplus to requirements, my friends, each and every one of us — and always have been. But it takes a certain amount of time — say, a good few decades or so — before that fact really hits home, and by then, our usurpers are already beginning to remake things in their own image.
This fear of the younger generation may be par for the course, sure,, but when the folks on the other side of 40 (or 30, or 50, or whatever) decide they want to cling to what little relevance they may still have by any means necessary, things can get a little bit nasty. Parents dump resentment after resentment on their kids for decades. Schools lay down ridiculous dress code policies that any right-thinking youth will rebel against in a heartbeat. Stuff kids like to do for fun — namely, drugs — are criminalized. Old politicians send young soldiers off to die in wars.
In recent years, the ruling elites in the UK have gotten even more brazen in their attempts to stifle kids and have passed a series of laws broadly defined as ASBOs — anti-social behavior ordinances — that have called for mandatory psychological testing of children as young as six years old who exhibit “anti-authoritarian” (remember when we just called it being rambunctious?) personality traits, have outlawed large gatherings of young people in certain locales, have dumped mountains of prozac and other “anti-depressants” down the throats of kids who just like to get a bit a wild now and then, and have even made criminals out of anyone wearing — gasp! — hooded sweathshirts.
Can you say overkill?
And that leads to the problem with The Expelled — a flick like this not only legitimizes these paranoid “concerns,” but reinforces in the audience member’s mind the “need” for these ridiculous policies. And furthermore, it does a very effective job of it. This is a movie that even kids would probably dig — until they sit back and think about how it can easily be used to tighten the noose around their generation’s collective neck.
Maybe that F title should have stuck, because while I’d definitely give The Expelled a solid “A” in terms of its execution, the risible, retrograde, and even dangerous ideas at its core — “don’t trust kids, they lack discipline and are flat-out evil!” — really are a failure : of imagination, of creativity, and of basic human decency. The more we push the youngsters down, they’re harder they’re gonna push back — and we’ll deserve it for being such assholes to them.
At the end of the day, to misquote Cyndi Lauper, kids just wanna have fun. and it would behoove those of us who are nearing, or already over, the proverbial “hill” to get the hell out of their way and let them do so. After all, we need them to take care of us when we’re well and truly elderly, and they’re not going to be real eager to do that if we’ve made their upbringing a living hell, are they?
That’s a much scarier proposition right there than any that The Expelled has to offer. Watch it, most definitely — enjoy it, sure (I did) — but don’t take it to heart. Kids might be a pain in the ass, I grant you, but they’re not out to get us — unless we give them a damn good reason .