Monday, May 11, 2009

Revisiting 1999: The Forgotten Films --- The War Zone (Tim Roth)

This is one of many posts that I'll hopefully be putting up every Monday to close out my Revisiting 1999 project. This is the first film in the "forgotten films" category. For a recap of why I'm doing this click here; and for thoughts on other films from 1999 click here, here, and here. This week it's Tim Roth's forgotten masterpiece The War Zone. Next week I'll look at Ralph Fiennes' greatest performance in the forgotten family saga Sunshine. Look for these every Monday.

One of the forgotten masterpieces of 1999 was Tim Roth’s The War Zone, a brutal look at an isolated family and the seemingly happy existence they live out in an old coastal house, miles away from any city or anybody. This is a film of deep hurts, painful secrets, and truths, which for some characters, are better not unveiled, so as to not disrupt the community the family has worked so hard to solidify.

And the family does indeed live like a close knit community. They’re comfortable with each others bodies as there a warmness and familiarity to their mother (Tilda Swinton) nursing the newborn daughter in the kitchen; or dad (Ray Winstone) walking around the house naked; or Tom’s (Freddie Cunliffe) sister Jessie (Lara Belmont) comfortably sitting topless in front of her brother. It all seems quite medieval and normal for this family, a family who we learn escaped the “normalcy” of the city so that they could retreat to a more holistic, communal setting; which indeed becomes a war zone.

The story concerns Tom, 15, and what he sees one day when coming home from the city with his mother. He happens upon an incident that may, or may not be, a big deal: his sister and father in what looks like the two of them in the bath together. Jessie, 18, claims that she was taking a bath and when she was done her dad came in and got in the tub as she was getting out – Tom thinks he saw differently. The question now full entrenched in Tom’s mind about his father is the catalyst for an investigation that brings forth so much hurt and pain and deep family secrets.

After Tom sees what he sees in the bathroom (which Roth wisely never shows the audience) there’s a great POV track of Tom heading towards his dad, and then, at that moment the audience can draw the conclusion that it somehow involves him. Tom stares at his dad with the eyes of someone who’s been told to mind what they can’t understand. There’s a teeming, buried past of hatred and secrets that is ready to burst the bubble of this tranquil countryside family.

Tom’s “investigation” and weariness of his father, is executed by Roth in a nuanced and intimate – almost to an uncomfortable level – manner, just like a Bergman film would be. Tom’s knowledge is ready to ruin every seemingly happy family outing. There’s a scene in a pub where Tom will do anything to get away from being around his dad, and he looks upon him with such disdain; then there’s a crucial moment where Tom almost usurps his dad’s reign over their community when he refuses to take some of his dad’s money. It’s a crucial moment for Tom; at that moment he’s decided he doesn’t want to be anything like his dad, who at this point in the film seems like a loving, caring father.

It all goes to hell when Jessie and Tom come back late from a trip to the beach (where it is insinuated that Jessie has had sex with her boyfriend Nick, played by a young Collin Farrell) and the relationship between Tom and dad becomes even murkier. Tom then finds some naked pictures of his sister. At first he is merely shocked by her sexuality – her playfulness – then he finds one of her and her dad, and realizes that what he saw in the bathroom is not only proof that Jessie lied to him, but proof that there is something incestuous going on.

Tom then brings a camcorder to catch them in the act, and he does, and what follows is a scene that makes this film so excruciating to get through a second time. It’s brutal and unflinching – and quite cerebral on the father’s part. What makes the scene even more wrenching is the fact that the daughter, who was all for the father’s playfulness earlier in the film (being naked in the same room together is one thing) weeps uncontrollably as she any remnants of sexual vivacity is raped from her – it’s as if in one fell swoop her father is doubly getting what he wants: her body and her future; surely there will be no more adventures on the beach after this horrifying experience. After the brutal scene is over all that you can hear are the breakers smashing against the rocks – a perfect metaphor for what is going on inside of Tom, who has just witnessed the act and caught it all on tape.

Roth uses a lot of establishing shots. He introduces the house the way a horror director would, framing it to look like an eerie landmark where dark secrets lurk. Roth also uses sound brilliantly in the film. There isn’t a lot of it – the film, from a post production standpoint, is about as bare bones as you can get – adding to the excruciatingly painful truths that lurk in their home. Each scene is filmed in uncomfortable silence or with sparse haunting notes of piano keys; the sound of the breakers, of a squeaky floorboard, the metal clang of a door slamming shut, and all the emotions these sounds evoke: loneliness, isolation, instability, coldness – they all help Roth in establishing the metaphors the same way Bergman would.

There are multiple shots of Tom dwarfed by his surroundings, the vastness that envelops him is the perfect metpahor. He has an incredible burden on his shoulders, and he is utterly alone in what he is feeling. What makes Roth’s film so truthful and powerful is the fact that Tom’s decision to blow the whistle on his sister and dad is not so cut and dry; he doesn’t want to be the one who ruins his family’s happiness; which is precisely why after catching that horrifying act between his sister and father on tape, he throws the camera to the rocks. That moment belongs solely to this place; Tom consciously chooses not to carry this horror with him when he returns to the city.

In Roger Ebert’s review of the film, he wonderfully (and succinctly…sorry I just can’t be succinct!) comments on the films harsh themes: “The movie is not about incest as an issue, but about incest as a blow to the heart and the soul--a real event, here, now, in a family that seems close and happy. Not a topic on a talk show.”

Which makes Roth’s film even harder to sit through; there are no easy answers here, and when you see that awful scene, there is a thin line of ambiguity that underlines it. During the “sex” scene, is she crying because of how awful the act is, or because the act is physically painful? It’s not as easy a question to answer as you would think considering the attitude of the sister after the event. Are these her feelings, or the feelings her father has corrupted her with?

When Tom finally confronts his dad there are many things said and tears shed, and the outpouring from the father at the end of the film is more a confessional – a crying out to the sane part of himself, the part that’s a good father who tells amusing anecdotes – to stop the nonsense with his daughter, instead of what seems like a verbal lashing against his son. Sure he’s angry at Tom for exposing the truth, but the scene is blocked by Roth in a way where the father’s yelling seems more directed at himself than his son. When he can barely utter the words “you’re breaking this family up” and “what are you doing to me”, the scene takes on a whole new meaning: he’s trying to talk some sense to himself. It’s a powerful scene that showcases why Winstone is one of our best actors.

Of course once cooler heads have prevailed, the father will do anything to keep the secrets under wraps, and there’s a calm, almost sinister, conversation that takes place between his son and daughter at the end of the film that ends with a shock.

There are a lot of polarities that Roth explores: Medieval vs. Modern, Innocence vs. Experience, and Secrets vs. Information; and they’re all explored brilliantly, and without a hint of cynicism. Consider the scene immediately after Tom confronts Jessie about having sex with their father. Jessie responds by trying to usher her brother into her world of sexuality. Jessie gets an older woman to seduce Tom in an ambiguous gesture that is hard to decipher: is she just acting as an older sister trying to help younger brother get laid? Or, is she trying to show him that sex with an older person is not so abnormal. The scene, however, takes on a whole different meaning when the older woman announces: “I could be your mother.” He makes a clear distinction between his family and the act when he says “no you couldn’t.” He wants no part of anything that represents what his father and Jessie partake in. Then Jessie interrupts the act, it’s almost a cerebral “gotcha” moment as if to show Tom that he’s no different than she is.

The War Zone is a sucker punch to the gut; it stops you in your tracks and places you in a moment of contemplative sadness that is rarely found in films not directed by Ingmar Bergman. It’s a hard film to sit through, it’s as devoid of happiness as the drab gray skies that line the coastline throughout the film; but to borrow a credo from Roger Ebert: no good movies are depressing, only bad one’s. This is a great movie, a forgotten masterpiece from 1999, which deserves to be (re)discovered.

Extra stills that, if you've seen the film, may spark discussion in the comments section (I think the first still of Jessie and Tom sitting together like they're in prison is an apt and powerful image):


  1. you wrote about war zone a while ago, and, reading your comment and others i am totally afraid to watch this film - i read about reactions at various screening where people had to leave the theatre, and they were upset - could it be that this intense exploration of a taboo is something that the director might know personally and that it is the site of his almost therapeutic exorcism of it? is that what a film should be about? that's my question. a kind global exorcism - best left to a trained listener rather than moviegoers - can you imagine what the case went through> especially ray winstone - who seems to manage these things without personal cost, i guess.

  2. Leslie:

    Thanks for the comment. You shouldn't be afraid to watch them the quote I use from Ebert in my essay "no good movie is depressing, only bad ones." However, I realize that doesn't mean some of the material may be more than upsetting. It's not a film that will put you in any kind of mood to talk to people, maybe for days, but it's a powerful film experience, and despite its touchy subject material (and the toll it no doubt took on its crew, as you point out) I can't deny the fact that it's such a masterfully executed drama.

    You're right about the people getting up and leaving Roth's film at a screening at one of the film festivals. I believe one lady passed out and few others ran to the bathroom to throw up. I thought I remember reading that Roth was physically attacked, too.

    It's a tough film, but worth arduous task of sitting through it's gruff explication of incest. I hope you give the film a chance.

    Thanks for stopping by.