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The Ruins

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Starring Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone, and Shawn Ashmore. 91 minutes, rated R

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If you turn the first page of Scott Smith's The Ruins, a friend said astutely, you won't put it down — but if you know what it's about beforehand, you won't pick it up. So let's just say that if this reworking never approximates the abandon-all-hope ferocity of Smith's hair-whitening source novel, it's still a superior shocker with a mood-altering edge of hallucinatory madness. In an absurdist setup that resembles Beckett by way of EC Comics, five tourists (four American, one German) are forced atop a remote Mayan temple, where they face two options: a quick death from armed villagers who've surrounded the site, or a slow death from the snaky, insatiable tendrils of the ruins' entrenched resident. What follows is a study in situational ethics, destabilized group dynamics, and existential panic, as each new choice between the lesser of two evils only brings greater evils. Though Smith adapted his own book, the briskly paced, neatly telescoped movie is too short to recapture its grinding psychological devastation, leaving a gory but strangely slight allegory of America's dependence on creature comforts. But first-time feature director Carter Smith, working with resourceful cinematographer Darius Khondji, pulls off the neat trick of using the wide screen to claustrophobic effect. And the actors give such a convincing display of starvation-fueled fear that they deserve their own private craft service table.

 
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