There are few images that sell bleak post-apocalypse more than a lone soul trudging through a winter wilderness with all their possessions strapped to their back. Couple this with the strange, seemingly abandoned farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, and the scene has more than set itself. It’s such an effective collection of imagery that it’s starting to become cinematically repetitious. Likewise a narrative surrounding some mysterious plague, of which masses of the population are infected with something or other, leaving survivors scattered and few.
That said, not like we haven’t seen this type of trend-in-the-making happen before. The shorthand for post-apocalyptic wasteland used to be, and often still is, a mountainous, dry landscape with rampaging cannibals, mutants and other sorts hunting in packs or gangs that our survivor heroes must avoid. This new wintery bleakness shorthand exists to sell the apocalypse of infection, whether that be an actual illness or how one would like to characterize a zombie outbreak. It appears in video games (The Last of Us), and I was even on a jury that gave a short film with similar leanings an award (Jeremy Robbins’ excellent Aftermath).
This is my way of saying that, while I hadn’t specifically seen Pablo Bonelli’s short film GasMask, as it was working along I felt like I had seen it. Variations on the same ideas and settings, obviously, but enough similarities to think that this scenario is now becoming commonplace. And while the familiarity undercuts the impact of the film somewhat, GasMask is still a fine representation of this new trend.
In this scenario, our lone survivor (Jason Zednick) trudging through the wilderness encounters the aforementioned farmhouse, only to find it still inhabited by a family who easily get the drop on him when the prospect of quenching his thirst lures him away from a more thorough investigation of the grounds. After assuring themselves that the stranger isn’t infected, they invite him in for a meal. It’s all pleasantries and polite conversations, but lurking under the surface are insidious motivations.
And thus the film plays out humanity’s inhumanity to itself, when faced with the bleakest prospects of survival. Everyone in the film is in full-on ragged and suffering shape; the future doesn’t look bright for anyone involved. If you’re expecting a happy ending, look elsewhere; or, you and I have different definitions of happy.
To give the filmmakers credit, they perfectly craft the rawness of a world left to chilly despair and desperation. Again, the visual shorthand already discussed goes miles to do this, but so too does the matter-of-fact movements and decisions by those who have survived thus far. The performances are acting out the roles of what humans used to do when times were good, relate and socialize, when really they can’t wait to do what they can to continue their own survival. It’s all a show.
In that sense, the titular gasmask could be considered a shield for our stranger, as the entire of humanity is polluted and infected, whether they show something explicit or not. Best way to endure is to separate, wear a mask, preferably one that serves a practical as well as metaphorical purpose. Just another survival mechanism.
As I said, GasMask is a fine representation of this new apocalypse-by-mysterious-infection trend, and it even wraps up in such a way as to establish that there could be more tales to tell. Which, if true, I encourage the filmmakers to do more than embrace these tropes, but to do something to transform them into something fresh. I know they can deliver quality with the familiar, now I want to see something exceptional and unique.
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