I’d never heard of this movie until I listened to the Hicksploitation episode of the Evolution of Horror podcast. Thankfully, they didn’t include spoilers—if you haven’t seen it, definitely go watch it before proceeding here!
Eden Lake is an incredibly tight and well-thought-out movie, despite its story being very simple in its essence. Somewhat surprisingly, justice and how it can be carried out was a central theme. There’s an element of “an eye for an eye,” but even beyond that, so much of the escalation results from characters being afraid of getting the state justice system involved.
On the drive to their vacation destination, Jenny and Steve listen to what might be the longest series of interviews ever about ‘teens running wild,’ contextualizing the culture and view of youths at this time. It’s unlikely that a school teacher like Jenny would subscribe to these ideas, but as the interview plays on their radio, neither Jenny nor Steve comment to give us their perspective. It’s fair to assume they essentially go along with much of the concerns Broken Britain advocates espouse, since they don’t comment otherwise. It’s just odd that they’d just keep listening without saying anything.
Justice can take many forms, and this subject is handled in the film in a number of ways. The first comes when Steve and Jenny are sitting on the back patio of a pub near Eden Lake. Drinking and enjoying their night, they notice a toddler causing a scene. Steve begins to say, “that kid needs a good slap,” but pauses as he witnesses the mother slap and yell at the child. It’s jarring and confrontational, and makes you think of how often people make flippant comments without considering the reality of what they’re suggesting. Steve isn’t a monster, and no one wants to see a child hurt, despite this being a standard response to an annoying kid.
Much of the actions taken by the teens revolve around who’s been involved and implicated, how much trouble they’d get into if anyone called the police. Brett, the bully leader of the teen gang, makes sure that the whole gang has done something to make them responsible for Steve’s injuries and the situation that they’re in.
During the scene where Steve is held captive, Brett coerces each of the teens into stabbing him on camera. Even the youngest among them is made to do this. Steve pleads with them, noting that no one has died, and they can all just go their separate ways, but Brett reminds him that his dog’s dead—something Steve is responsible for, though it was self-defense.
Throughout the movie, themes of cyclical violence recur. Brett comments to his friend, “What do you know about the pen? Has your dad been inside?” Saying someone is formerly incarcerated is often movie-shorthand to stigmatize anyone who’d been caught up in the criminal legal system as violent, as Brett’s father has been. Another reading of this could be about how the penal system doesn’t help with the problem of violence. Rather than “rehabilitating” its subjects, the criminal justice system places people into extremely violent and traumatic prisons, which only results in reinforcing violent tendencies, adding to the cyclical nature of violent behavior. Throughout the movie, all of the scenes with Brett’s father Jon expand on this.
Brett’s learned response to conflict seems to always be violence, whether it’s threatening or enacting. We’re given a glimpse of Brett’s home life when Steve (inexplicably) enters his house without invitation and unbeknownst to the occupants. The whole scene unfolds to show how Jon is an aggressive and potentially violent person. As soon as he arrives home, he’s immediately honking and shouting, “you’re blocking me drive!” at Jenny, who’s sitting in the car waiting for Steve to return from the house. There’s no consideration for what her situation may be, just that he’s been inconvenienced and she needs to move. Once inside, Jon walks through a cluttered house and takes note of a hole in the kitchen door, the second time we see a character acknowledge it. It looks like someone had punched the door—indicating a short-tempered, possibly violent person lives here. Then, we hear Jon shouting up the stairs, “Brett, get down here! Don’t make me come up there!” He’s a constant threat to everyone around him.
In the end, we see Brett’s dad smack him and say, “don’t talk back to me, boy.” Recalling the child from the pub, we know that this kind of abuse isn’t just happening in Brett’s home. Jon is aggressive and threatening, we’re given a clear sense that he’s a bully—clearly where Brett’s picked up this behavior. Not that I think this should let him off the hook for the heinous actions he takes, but I’m reminded of a quote from Miriame Kaba: “No one enters violence the first time by committing it.” This is coupled with how the waitress (who turns out to be Brett’s mother) refuses to acknowledge that her kids may have been involved in some conflict with Steve and Jenny. Together, this seems like a winning combo to make a monster kid. Someone who’s aggressive, possibly violent, but always forgiven/defended, a “boys will be boys” kind of attitude.
As outsiders, we can see numerous points during each instance where conflict is escalated between Steve and Jenny and Brett’s gang. While we may find ourselves saying things like just leave or don’t go there or even let it go, it’s important to remember that oftentimes when we find ourselves in conflict we can get tunnel vision. And, for the most part, Jenny makes reasonable decisions that audiences can understand and probably see themselves making, given the circumstances.
The impact of violence on the aggressor is also an important factor throughout the movie. When the teens are each taking turns stabbing Steve, one of them throws up and another intentionally inflicts as minimal an injury as possible. During this scene, we’re able to infer more about the background of some of these gang members. Later, Jenny kills one of the kids by suddenly stabbing him in the neck as he approaches her. He was the youngest member of the gang, and it seemed he was going to apologize and help her escape. But her knee-jerk reaction to his presence was to defend herself and kill him, which is somewhat understandable. I don’t think she was aware of what his intentions were, yet still she mourns him and cries for what she’s done. Violence often hurts everyone involved, especially the uninitiated. These moments, by way of contrast, highlight Brett’s sadistic nature even more so than.—even more so than the cartoonish glee he displays while watching Steve get stabbed.
I appreciated that Jenny takes on the role of protector. Too often in horror movies especially, women are the targets of violence, whom men are meant to come in and save. Here though, Steve is the one who’s brutally attacked, while Jenny tries to save them both. It’s a much appreciated twist on gender roles in horror movies.
Beyond these familial and social implications, Eden Lake really underlines one of the most visceral, and frequently experienced, fears I personally have: confrontation with strangers. Who knows how they’ll react, or what will happen if there are significant miscommunications or misunderstandings between parties? We’ve all found ourselves in a situation where people are acting in ways we find irritating or at the very least in ways that make us roll our eyes in annoyance. Imagine confronting them, thinking you have the upperhand, only to quickly lose control of the situation entirely.
While Eden Lake is only about 90 minutes long, it packs a lot in, making great use of the scenery and every interaction on screen. Other reviewers have called the film classist because of the way it depicts an impoverished rural community. It’s certainly not unfair to criticize Eden Lake on these grounds. The townspeople in the film are portrayed as violent and abusive, but one of the strengths the movie has is that it gives audiences a lot to think about when looking for the roots of this issue, without positing a solution. Had the movie attempted to solve any of the aforementioned issues, it would’ve come across as pedantic and possibly even patronizing. By leaving audiences on their own to figure this out, the filmmakers display a trust in viewers that too many others don’t seem to have.
Eden Lake is a deceptively dense movie, and one that I highly recommend. Though it may be categorized alongside movies like Wolf Creek or Wrong Turn, it leaves audiences with so much more to consider. The artistry of Christopher Ross’s cinematography paired with the sensitivity of writer/director James Watkins makes it one of the most impactful films among its ilk. While Jenny’s fate is remarkably bleak, it’s so much worse when you realize it’s a metaphor for the inescapable nature of violence.