THE WAR ZONE
Directed by Tim Roth
Written by Alexander Stuart, based on his novel of the same name
With Ray Winstone, Tilda Swinton, Lara Belmont and Freddie Cunliffe
Distributed by Lot 47 Films
As soon as incest stopped being a taboo subject in American TV and movies, it quickly became a lazy screenwriter's short cut, ready to be exploited to lay out motivation and backstory in the most glib manner. (When a friend of mine took a screenwriting class several years ago, her classmates inevitably suggested that her screenplay about a woman's troubled relationship with her absentee father should have included a flashback in which he molests her.) In contrast, THE WAR ZONE deliberately views the act through the eyes of a teenage boy who doesn't completely understand what he's seeing or what he should do about it. At times, his point of view is much the same as ours - the camera will gaze at someone through a door, followed by a cut will reveal him looking through the same perspective - but Roth is careful to keep the audience from identifying too easily with any of his characters. As a result, his film offers no catharsis, much less any easy answers, but it expertly evokes an adolescence in hell.
THE WAR ZONE centers around a family who've recently moved from London to a house in the coastal town of Devon. An incessant voyeur, their son Tom (Freddie Cunliffe) likes to spy on his father (Ray Winstone) and mother (Tilda Swinton) in bed together. After seeing his father and sister Jessie (Lara Belmont) share a bath and then discovering nude photos of her, he suspects that they're having sex. Misunderstanding what goes on between the two, he treats her contemptuously, as if she were a fully willing, consensual partner, and doesn't realize the true nature of their father 's actions until he watches him rape her anally in a cabin outside the house. After seeing this incontrovertible evidence, he begins a series of confrontations that wind up tearing the family apart.
With the success of the Dogma 95 manifesto/prank, the handheld camera-driven style and abrasvie editing of films like THE CELEBRATION (not to mention many British social realist dramas) has come to signify "reality". Given Roth's identification with Mike Leigh (who gave him a starring role in the 1983 film MEANTIME), one might expect him to continue in the raw vein of Ken Loach, early Leigh and MEANTIME co-star Gary Oldman, but his mise-en-scéne is quite classical, even painterly. Nevertheless, few recent films have presented their characters as material bodies quite the way THE WAR ZONE does. Their turmoil is both physical and emotional, a point brought home when Jessie burns her breast with a cigarette lighter until she cries and then invites her brother to do the same. As much as SAFE or THE FLY, this is a horror film about the way our bodies can betray us, in which abuse only magnifies the usual havoc wrought by adolescence and middle age. In most Hollywood movies about teenagers, zits are nonexistent, and the "ugly duckling" is one makeover away from looking like a glamour queen. No such luck here. Roth's approach to the body - Tom's greasy hair and acne-mottled face, the saggy torsoes of Winstone and Swinton - is pitiless, and his use of nudity is as casual as it is utterly un-erotic.
THE WAR ZONE sometimes seems like a Bizarro World anagram of Gary Oldman's NIL BY MOUTH, which also starred Winstone as an abusive patriarch. In place of Oldman's inner-city setting, hyperactive camera movements and endless streams of dialogue in which characters say "cunt" and "fuck" as often as they breathe, Roth relies on a carefully restrained style and relatively sparse dialogue. While his direction may be fairly conventional, the film's lighting and sound design are rather stylized: both interiors and exteriors always look a little dim, sometimes so much so that one has to strain to make out detail. This device both draws one into the film - by making us work to the point that we can't help recognizing the voyeuristic impulses we share with Tom - and keeps one at a remove from the setting and characters. Roth treats the family home as a microcosm of a heartless world, not a haven from it, framing his characters' shifting positions within it to emphasize this coldness. The sunless Devon coastline becomes a harsh presence reminiscent of a Tarkovsky setting, thanks to a soundtrack mixed so that its wind, seagulls and water noises become a constant, grating drone rather than mere local color.
In an interview with Dennis Lim in THE VILLAGE VOICE, Roth ardently defends his opaque approach: "If I were to show what motivates the abuser, then I would have betrayed the nature of the abuse. Our problem with abuse is: We don't know...The victims don't know why, and sometimes the abusers don't either - maybe they just like to put their penises inside small, fragile people." This refusal to provide answers alternately seems like an act of courage and a cop-out. I don't blame Roth for his reluctance to explain the father's behavior - in fact, I can picture the flashback to his abusive childhood a lesser director would have included - but his presentation of all four major characters as blank slates feels more than a little coy. (The mother is especially underdeveloped.) The adoption of a confused, inarticulate boy's perspective, which may have worked better in Stuart's novel, here suggests a case of style over substance. Admirably, THE WAR ZONE avoids the ususal pitfalls that come with the subject of incest, but its elegant bleakness conceals a dearth of new insight into its well-worn parade of horrors.