Made on a small budget by a first time director (James Watkins), it also did not feature any actors who were major stars at the time. The main characters are Jenny, played by Kelly Reilly, and her boyfriend Steve, played by Michael Fassbender. Fassbender has gone on to become a major star, but here he was still relatively unknown. It works in the movie’s favor as some times star power can take away from a film’s sense of realism.
The film opens with Jenny, a school teacher, interacting with young students. Right away it is obvious she is a caring and kind person. Jenny and Steve decide to get away from it all for the weekend in the woods. The area is to be developed into a neighborhood called Eden Lake, and the couple wishes to go there before it is “ruined” by man. This is another similarity to the film Deliverance, as in that film the characters wish to raft down a river before it gets dammed up for urban development.
On their way, the couple’s GPS tells them to “turn around at the first opportunity”. This is an early warning sign that something is about to go wrong, a nice little touch by the filmmakers. Once at the Lake, Jenny and Steve come across a gang of young kids who are seemingly all around the ages of 12. The couple tries to enjoy themselves, but the gang harasses them and acts rudely towards them for no good reason. Steve can’t turn the other cheek and tries to stand up to them. This leads to a series of events where the gang repeatedly torments the couple, even stealing their car at one point. Steve attempts to get the car back and accidentally kills the gang’s dog during a physical altercation. This sets the gang off, and they capture and torture Steve, leaving Jenny to fend for herself. Jenny becomes the focus of the film as she attempts to rescue Steve and get out of the woods with their lives intact.
One of the things that makes the film so unique is that the villains are considerably younger than the main characters. The gang is smaller and younger, but have the numbers advantage and wreak havoc on the two twenty-somethings and turn their weekend into a nightmarish experience. It would be so easy for this film not to work for that reason, but to the film’s credit this aspect remains believable. The characters all feel realistic, which makes it so easy to feel sympathy for Jenny and Steve and anger towards the gang.
The film’s tone is consistently dark and unhappy once Jenny and Steve come across the antagonists. The acting is very believable by everyone involved. This film relies heavily on being realistic, and Fassbender and Reilly turn in good performances. Neither character is perfect, as Steve does some stubborn things that set off the gang and Jenny makes bad decisions under pressure. This makes them seem more like people the audience can identify with. It is relentlessly suspenseful and never deviates from the story it is trying to tell. It is hard not to cringe seeing Steve get tortured and Jenny scrambling in terror. All of the horror in this film comes from the sympathy it creates for these characters, and it is very effective.
If there is a criticism to be made of this film, it is that it gets a little silly at times in the third act. Where most films suffer from characters experiencing unrealistic good luck, in this film the misfortune is unrealistic. The believability falters a bit as some unrealistic events take place which make the situation worse. Most of the film is excellent in feeling realistic, and while it retains its consistent tone, the plausibility comes under question later in the film.
Overall, this is an effective film. It is an experience. The story is consistently engaging and while not a fun film to watch, it’s one that will take the audience on an emotional journey. It has great performances, a very appropriate look and feel, and competent direction. Some great horror movies are a fun thrill ride that will make you jump and laugh while you are scared. This is one that will scare you and while giving you a sinking feeling in your stomach.