The War Zone

The Boston Phoenix


REVIEWED: 12-20-99

Catastrophe strikes early in Tim Roth's bleak and brutal debut feature, which is based on the controversial British novel by Alexander Stuart. Nestled in their white sugar cube of a cottage on the Devon Coast, a family settle in for the night: work-weary, beefy Dad (Ray Winstone), sullen, big-eyed teenage daughter Jessie (Lara Belmont), sullen, spotty-faced younger son Tom (Freddie Cunliffe), and placid, hugely pregnant Mum (Tilda Swinton). As the latter tends to an errand, her waters break, unnoted but for watchful Tom and the probing camera. The family drive to the hospital, the car overturns and crashes and for a long, tense moment lies smoking and silent in the darkness.

But tragedy is averted, for now; Mum is extracted from the car window, and moments later a baby daughter is extracted from her womb. Soon the family are back home, bandaged but mostly smiling, and you hope this happy ending lasts, if only for the sake of poor Ray Winstone after his hideous fortunes as a father in such films as Gary Oldman's recent directorial debut, Nil by Mouth.

It's not to be. Tom, for one, is a bit of a peeper. He peers through the bedroom door as naked Mum and Dad, the former still stretched out by pregnancy, fondle and coo. Later, after spying through the bathroom window, he confronts Jessie with something he saw her doing with Dad. "It's a pretty weird thing you're suggesting," she says defensively. And so it would be if Tom at the moment weren't sitting on Jessie's bed in his underwear and she weren't stark naked.

This is not a normal family, even by movie standards. Some doubt lingers as to whether Tom has actually witnessed a primal misdeed or is merely in the throes of hormonal hallucinations sparked by the disruption and boredom of the family's recent move from London (not to mention the household's casual dress code). Evidence mounts, however, and Tom threatens to tell Mum while Jessie cries and takes him to London in an unsuccessful bid to get him laid. Finally, armed with a video camera (unlike the teenage hero of American Beauty, whose camera seeks out the sublime roots of existence, Tom is drawn to recording its ugly, horrific essence), he peers into a World War II pillbox on a cliff overlooking the shore. It's the grim opposite of the pristine white cottage the family live in, a squat camera obscura lit by two slits, and inside Tom sees something shocking.

Actually, by this point it's rather predictable. The War Zone is similar in dynamics to Roth's acting style, a homely appearance guaranteed to erupt into outrages. But the motivation for these outbursts is not always clear, and the effect is sometimes more histrionic than illuminating. Roth makes a calculated choice to isolate his characters, making them perhaps like heroes in Greek tragedy or figments in a nightmare, but taking them out of a broader social context also emphasizes the mystery of individual motives.

About these, the film remains aloof. The dialogue is muttered and minimal, and Roth relies a lot on the pathetic fallacy to communicate mood and intent. The shots of waves crashing on craggy shores, of figures dwarfed by rolling gray hillsides or cramped and cut off by tenebrous interiors (if there is ever an award for ugly wallpaper, this should win), evoke the angst of Bergman and Brontë. And Tom, stalking the heath with his imagination and pimples aflame, is a kind of mini-Heathcliff.

Why does it all offend more than it disturbs? The acting is not at fault; newcomers Lara Belmont and Freddie Cunliffe inhabit their difficult roles with dignity and sensitivity, Winstone is touching as a seeming monster who collapses upon confrontation, and the usually ethereal Swinton displays an unusual physicality (she had recently given birth in real life) as the clueless mother. But when you find yourself rooting for the siblings to commit incest themselves to combat their father's atrocities, you realize the melodrama and pathology have been pitched a little too high. In this ambitious look at how the most intimate battles are waged, Roth's The War Zone engages in overkill.

--Peter Keough

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