Alex Lightman’s Tear Me Apart opens with an act of inhuman transgression, in a liminal space. In the entrance to a cave that looks out onto the waves that eternally buffet and shape the beach, a boy (Alfie Stewart) on the cusp of adulthood approaches an injured, supine older man, smothers him, cuts open the now dead man’s wrist, reaches deep into the slit with his own hand, and chews on the flesh that he pulls out. From the very outset, we know that Tear Me Apart will be realising and literalising the name of its production company, Cannibal Films.
Yet in Tear Me Apart‘s post-apocalyptic future, where women have all virtually died out – or at least been killed off – and society has broken down into tiny male units, in fact cannibalism is still considered beyond the pale, at least by those old enough to remember the time when it was wrong. No sooner has the boy’s older brother (Frazer Alexander) seen what is happening than he takes the boy to task: “What would Father say? Look, I won’t warn you again, never people!”
These two brothers subsist together alone on the southern coast of England, and rigorously “follow Father’s rules” despite his many years of absence. They are guided by a hope that is, upon any examination, entirely backward-looking: a hope for a return of the Father, and of the Old World’s patriarchy – even though that was the source of all their problems in the first place. So the boy’s tentative, sneaky first steps towards cannibalism are driven as much by a natural adolescent desire to rebel as by desperation – he might be behaving bestially, but he is also, in his way, turning his back on papa and big brother. Old World be damned – this boy hungers for some newer flesh.
Then along comes Molly (Jennie Eggleton), a very rare female survivor, in search of her own similarly absent father, although he has gone missing more recently. Now starving and with fewer compunctions about the finer ethics of anthropophagy, at first the boys size Molly up for their next meal – but her arrival represents something else. In the older brother she sparks carnal desire, and in the younger brother new, hitherto unknown possibilities – while her own intended quest for her dad, to be undertaken in the ‘havens’ of rumoured towns or even cities beyond the narrow perimeters of the boys’ littoral existence, keeps challenging her hosts to go beyond the prescribed boundaries bequeathed to them by their father.
These future times are so stripped down and elemental that they take on the aspect of the Old Testament (complete with Father’s strict commandments). If the brothers’ closed world is a sort of savage Eden, then Molly is their Eve – indeed, in her first encounter with the boy, she offers him an apple, even though the Father and older brother have forbidden fruit. With her presence, dynamics shift, and the very real possibility emerges that the brothers will become divided and murderously at odds with each other – like Cain and Abel. In the end, though, it is the New Testament that will instead come to the fore, with the decidedly Christian images of a pierced side, self-sacrifice and communion asserting themselves in the narrative as signs of changing times and values.
So, anyone approaching Lightman’s feature debut with the expectation of straight-up cannibalistic horror might be disappointed – but for those who like a bit of a coming-of-age allegory and post-patriarchal spin to their post-apocalyptic fables, there is much on which to chew here. Beautifully shot, too.
Tear Me Apart enjoys its UK Première from 18:00 on 16 June at the Genesis Cinema, and is available on VOD from the following day.
© Anton Bitel