Sunday, April 20, 2008

Review – The War Zone

April 20, 2008

The War Zone – Great Britain, 1999

The War Zone begins with a shot of a home that it’s hard to believe anyone would like to live in. The home is shown from afar and because of that, viewers can clearly see that there’s not much in the way of a neighborhood surrounding it. In fact, throughout the movie we only see one neighbor visit. In front of the house is a long driveway, which has the affect of adding to the house’s isolation from society. The house itself has six windows facing the driveway. The rest of the house is painted white, with the exception of its black triangular roof, and the house appears to only open behind the driveway. It is the kind of house that young children make up ghost stories about. More importantly, it seems designed to keep secrets, and the house’s occupants, a family of four with a fifth on one the way, do nothing to dispel this perception.

Something is definitely wrong with this family. It is as if all sense of appropriateness and privacy have vanished, replaced by entirely inappropriate interactions that are extremely disconcerting. Imagine this, for starters. A man is driving his pregnant wife to the hospital because she is giving birth. As she screams in pain, her son Tom is standing up in the back seat, rather enjoying the experience of riding with the top half of his body exposed to the cold air. Does he not care that his mother is in pain? Later, the mother breastfeeds her child in front of her son, but when the newborn is full, she does not cover herself up right away and for a moment sits exposed in front of her son. This is clearly not what a mother normally does. Then there is a scene in which the son bursts into his sister Jessie’s room while she is topless, and no mention is made of the fact that his doing so is a complete violation of all definitions of decency, respect, and privacy. Obviously, we are seeing this family after something traumatic and shattering has occurred.

Normally, a movie like this uses flashbacks to show the audience the pivotal moment in the family’s implosion. In doing so, a movie creates for the viewer a sense of loss, the sense that they have just witnessed the cause of all the suffering that was shown before and now understand the tragedy of it all. The War Zone avoids this technique and suffers because of it. Without the clarity that those scenes would have brought, we are stuck watching joyless, lifeless characters who as a defense mechanism attack one another both verbally and physically. The effect of this is that viewers may not be able to emotionally invest in this family’s survival and may in fact root against them.

The film’s central conflict involves one family member’s sexual abuse of another. One day, Tom and his mother return from buying groceries. Tom, groceries in hand, walks toward the door first and on his way around the house is visible stunned by what he sees through one of the side windows. He drops the groceries and has a hard time moving, as if what he has seen has sapped him of all of his physical strength. Later, he confronts his sister about the image that so profoundly shocked him. She tells him he got it wrong – she was simply taking a bath when her father walked in on her accidentally. That’s all. However, Tom is clear about what he saw. What he is unclear about is why it happened. Later, when he catches them in the act, his sister’s pained, heart-wrenching sobs reveal the truth.

The War Zone’s final act is unsettling. For the scene to work, one must be able to see a murder as unavoidable - in other words, as an act of self-defense. However, the action at the end of the film can only be described as premeditated, even if the idea was hatched only a few minutes before. It also struck me as out of character, as the only hint that the character was capable of violence came during a brief, but unnerving physical altercation that ended in a hug. There was also a reference to the character getting into trouble at a number of schools. The exact trouble was not specified. And yet having said this, I have to admit that I felt no remorse for the victim. The problem is that I didn’t have any concern for the killer’s future, either. I, like the characters in the film, was numb to the tragedy that had unfolded in front of my eyes, and I’m pretty sure that’s not what was intended. (on DVD)

2 and a half stars

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