Movie Magazine International

The War Zone

UK - 1999

Movie Review By Casey McCabe

Actor Tim Roth, best known in America for his roles in Quentin Tarantino movies, makes his directorial debut with "The War Zone." Given the film's action/adventure title, the images of Roth's hyperkinetic thugs and the easy notes first time directors typically play to, a lot of people might not be prepared for "The War Zone." But then, how do you prepare for a brutally honest, incredibly patient and often ambiguous take on incest?

When we meet our family they have just moved from London to the remote countryside of Devon, England. They are struggling, as would any family with two relocated teenagers and an unexpected baby on the way. Mother, Father, Sister and Brother are also familiar, relaxed, and supportive in a way a lot of families might envy. But from the melancholy opening tinkle of the piano we know this will not be a pleasant story. Things aren't always what they seem. More troubling, they are often exactly what they seem, and this is the edge "The War Zone" slowly hammers into a knife blade.

The screenplay was written by Alexander Stuart, based on his controversial, award-winning novel. And Roth directs the film like a man who reads books. The definitive word is "lingering." The camera will stay with a shot until entire passages are wordlessly spoken. Even a car accident early in the film is handled from a discrete distance, the camera locked-off as the action grinds to a halt and stays there for agonizing realtime minutes. Shots of relentlessly cold and damp rural England make us want to rush inside. But once inside the family's dark and cluttered old farmhouse, we still instinctively want to reach for a light switch. Or a warm blanket. Or start looking for a way out.

The camera also lingers long and hard on the bodies that make up this family. They are remarkably honest portraits of the kind of bodies that rarely populate movies; lumpy, spotty, visceral and often unpretentiously naked. The sister, however, embodies something more; a rapidly blooming sex appeal. And as the film barely acknowledges a human world outside this family, there is nowhere else for it to go. The taboo is handled with all its complexities and contradictions. Intentional or not, the incest is made both titillating and abhorrent. And when the brother exacts his revenge, it seems to come from equal parts outrage and jealousy.

Veteran British actors Ray Winstone and Tilda Swinton bring carefully weighted performances to their often secondary roles as Mum and Dad. Newcomers Freddie Cunliffe and Lara Belmont were plucked from non-acting obscurity to play the even more demanding roles of Brother and Sister. Though I'm sure the filmmakers did not intend to take me out of the moment, it was hard to watch "The War Zone" and not ponder the affect filming must have had on the actors. Perhaps more so than I wondered about their characters.

"The War Zone" remains in many ways a stunning achievement. But once stunned, Roth seems content to leave the viewer uncomfortably numb. Maybe he could have lingered just a few moments longer and thrown us something to hold onto. Like a warm blanket.

© 2000 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 12/99

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