Studio: Passerby Films
Director: Andrew Robertson
Writer: Andrew Robertson, Lilly Kanso
Producer: Lilly Kanso
Stars: Sebastian Beacon, Carter Roy, Amy Rutberg, Chris Kies, Travis Grant, Mark Ashworth, Eva Grace Kellner
In the aftermath of a devastating global epidemic, a small family fights for survival against ruthless bands of scavenging marauders.
If post-apocalyptic thrillers are reflective of humanity’s true nature, then the obvious conclusion is that mankind is inherently evil. It’s not necessarily our fault, though. It’s the natural animal instinct of self-preservation driving us to put our own interests first, and woe unto those who stand in the way. Terms like “food chain” and “survival of the fittest” were invented specifically to rationalize what happens to anyone or anything on the losing ends of such scenarios.
If not that, then post-apocalyptic thrillers tell us cataclysmic events automatically turn everyone into as*holes, or that the only people capable of surviving a global catastrophe tend to be hillbilly rapists and gun-toting rednecks. “Refuge” depicts a grim North American wasteland along those lines by stripping the monster outside your door element altogether and focusing purely on how awful human beings can be to one another without societal order keeping survival instincts in check.
Jiminy Cricket starts whispering in Russell’s ear when Rez, the de facto leader of the survivor band Russell hooked up with, tires of scavenging for scraps and resorts to home invasion and murder for supplies. Russell escapes to a remote house occupied by a small family caring for their eight-year-old daughter, who is slowly succumbing to the sickness that has whittled down the population to desperate marauders and self-sufficient survivors. With Rez and other renegades in pursuit for no reasons other than corrupted delusions and “me first” attitudes, Russell and the others go on the run in search of safety and survival.
“Refuge” is a starkly realistic take on familiar themes most often explored by the zombie subgenre. Appreciation for its accomplishment is entirely dependent on tolerant tastes for calmer apocalyptic wasteland portrayals centered on the endurance of humanity and the downfall of structure. Other than dangers posed by other people, there aren’t any sentient clouds, mutated creatures, or external threats popping out to scream boo and send the heart racing. “Refuge” is what the standoff between Tom Savini’s motorcycle club and Ken Foree’s quartet would be like if there weren’t shambling corpses banging into the glass doors of the Monroeville Mall.
So intentionally dreary and so deliberately sad is the picture painted that two days removed from the film’s Screamfest screening, I can still vividly recall the cold imagery of Sung Rae Cho’s cinematography and the colder depiction of a life lived with rapidly diminishing hope. If you ever watch “The Walking Dead” with wonderment over why anyone would willingly choose to subsist in such a desolate world, “Refuge” will really have you questioning your own resolve in an imaginary crisis. Facing a near future where entertainment consists of old radio plays on cassette tape by the light of an oil lamp, and an average 9-to-5 day involves foraging for food in a gas mask while trying to not be brained by a madman with a spiked baseball bat, swallowing a bullet might actually be an enticing alternative.
At times, the film lays its bleakness on too thick past the point of disbelief suspension. The art department tumbles overboard with set dressing suggesting that when the apocalypse comes, the first thing all homeowners apparently do is take all decorations off their walls and cake every exterior surface in mud.
Overreliance on a shaky camera and certain setups such as marauders assembling like statues on an outside lawn, a great way for them to be picked off by gunmen potentially inside the house, are meant to look cinematic even though they concurrently cut down the realism. “Refuge” doesn’t need to expend all the visual effort it does to sell the environment as dismally gloomy when that tone is more than adequately conveyed through character behavior alone.
“Refuge” may not tread into new territory with its ideas, but what it wishes to explore regarding how mankind behaves when reduced by a survival scenario becomes a tense tale treated thoughtfully and executed tightly. It’s a hard truth to take because “Refuge” is probably what a post-outbreak North America would regrettably look like. That may not qualify as entertainment, especially for anyone already gorged on apocalypse event fiction or with expectations of larger scale chills. But taken as a sad social metaphor, the brisk 70-minute runtime prevents overindulgence in clichés while keeping the commentary relevant. Just make sure to have a handful of Wellbutrin on hand to combat the onset of depression likely to be inspired afterward.
NOTE: “Refuge” was previously known as “The Mansion.”
Review Score: 75