The War Zone (Tim Roth, 1999): UK

Reviewed by Jian Gedrick.

THE WAR ZONE, Freddie Cunliff, Lara Belmont, 1999Do you want to see a movie and be entertained or undergo an intensely tragic experience? I ask this question because actor Tim Roth’s directorial debut The War Zone (1999) is a deeply unsettling film that truthfully captures the devastating impact of incest by making you feel it more than witness it. It’s a shattering examination of abuse that lingers and haunts long after it’s over.

Based on the Alexander Stuart novel of the same name, the film introduces us to a normal English family where 18-year-old Jessie (Lara Belmont) and her 15-year-old brother Tom (Freddie Cunliffe) live with their dad (Ray Winstone) and mom (Tilda Swinton), who’s about to give birth to a girl, in a rural, isolated home they just moved into. From here the film patiently unfolds and allows the audience to get accustomed with the characters’ family dynamic as well as adjust to their idiosyncrasies, including the lack of discomfort they have have with being naked in front of one another. We become involved with them through Tom’s perspective; the parents’ names are never disclosed, they’re only known as Mum and Dad, which personalizes them. Roth’s slow direction in exhibiting these characters at the beginning gives us enough time to be convinced we’re observing a normal household amongst a loving family.

This atmosphere changes drastically when Tom returns home with Mum after grocery shopping and catches sight of something in the bathroom window. The camera doesn’t reveal what he’s witnessing, but he’s visibly distraught by what’s going on. Later he confronts Jessie in private and insists he saw something occur between her and Dad. She rebuts his claim with equal insistence nothing happened making it difficult to determine who is telling the truth. We as the audience are skeptical of the accusation, refusing to believe the unspeakable is taking place amongst the family we’ve grown comfortable with. Only when Tom uncovers sexually explicit photos between her and Dad we’re forced to accept the reality of the situation. Tom presents Jessie with the evidence and is now faced with the horrifying question of ‘what happens now?’.

As the film continues we are left to deal, alongside Tom, with the irreparable damage of familial sexual violence as he struggles in deciding whether to keep this a secret or reveal it to Mum and break up the family for good, becoming aware of prospective encounters between Jesssie and Dad, and being haunted by the consideration of what Dad might do now or later with the newborn baby. So many films deal with child abuse in a black-and-white-manner and are rarely able to convey how it destroys the soul. The act of incest and parents molesting their children is so blatantly wrong and off-putting that it’s easy to overlook the complexity of the damage it does for the victims. As a survivor of incest rape himself, Roth refuses to paint the evilness superficially, he makes the audience understand the pain by having us go through the maelstrom of emotions vicariously and feel just as confused and violated as the characters. There are a few graphic scenes, including one agonizing molestation scene in a bunker where the camera refuses to turn away from the brutality, but what makes the film so effectively shocking is its ultra realism, its raw account of a family destroyed by the unthinkable.

Roth’s skillful direction alone couldn’t have made The War Zone as compelling without the extraordinary cast, especially the two young leads, Lara Belmont and Freddie Cunliffe, who had no prior acting experience. They embody their roles as brother and sister quite naturally with a chemistry that gives the film a quasi-documentary quality in its seeming authenticity. Cunliffe is exceptional as the sulky teenager who becomes increasingly isolated by hiding the family secret while harboring disgust and animosity towards his father and sister. Belmont is harrowing as the broken daughter with a phlegmatic demeanor illustrating how numb she has become to her assaults and no longer feels anything. Finally much praise is given to Ray Winstone, who is able to give the monstrous father a warped sense of sympathy with his vehement denial of wrongdoing that blurs the line between outright lies and sincerity.

Few films have hit me like this one. The War Zone is Roth’s only directorial effort to date and stands alone as an impressionable oeuvre. Roth has created a disturbing, powerful film with a visceral insight of sexual abuse that assaults the psyche. In spite of being extremely difficult and painful to watch, the profound effect from this movie is hard to shake off. I didn’t enjoy watching The War Zone, nor do I think I can sit through it again, but I cannot forget the unprecedented cinematic impact it had on me.

Note: An NC-17 rating is best suited for this film.

3.5/4

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