Starring: Freddie Cunliffe, Lara Belmont, Ray Winstone, Tilda Swinton, Colin Farrell (as Colin J. Farrell)
Note: The version of the film that I saw was the unrated version. For the record, the theatrical cut was rated R for Sexual Content, Some involving Molestation, and for Nudity, Language and a Scene of Violence
One of the good things about independent films is that there is little enough money at stake that directors are willing to take chances. Certainly, no major studio (or their independent arms) would allow any filmmaker to come near this story with a ten foot pole, but even if they did, they would never have allowed them to go as far as Tim Roth does in his unbelievably powerful directorial debut.
Tom (Cunliffe) is a sullen young teenager who has just moved from London to Devon, a small English town in the middle of nowhere. He is not happy about the move because he misses his friends. Fortunately for him, he and his family are close knit: his older sister Jessie (Belmont) is about to go off to college, Mum (Swinton) is heavily pregnant, and Dad (Winstone) is a genial family man. But one night Tom sees something that both horrifies and confuses him, and it will change all their lives forever.
Although rare, incest is not foreign to film. But few (none that I've seen or heard of) deal with the subject matter head on. The issue is too painful and too personal for almost all viewers. Take a look at what happened at the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival. During one particularly intense scene, a viewer got up and screamed, "I can't take it anymore!" He ran to the exit intending to pull the fire alarm, but fortunately Roth was in the audience and it took him 20 minutes to calm the man down).
Tim Roth confronts an issue that few of us would like to think about with a frankness and a tenacity that only a small number of films are able, much less willing. Although the characters never address what's going on openly, we know excatly what they're thinking and feeling. The beauty of the film is that every scene has hidden layers. You can look into them as much as you want, and you'll always find a new interpretation of what's going on.
Take the film's most controversial scene. Tom has seen his father rape Jessie in a bunker, and he gets a video camera to catch him in the act. But look closer...is he a protector, or a voyeur? The latter is not as hard to swallow as one might think; every time we see an accident while driving, we slow down to take a look. If he's a protector, then why does he throw the camera off the cliff? To save their "family?"
The acting is superb all around. Freddie Cunliffe is terrific as the often silent and withdrawn teen. At first you might wonder why he is angry at his sister for her relationship with their father, but isn't victim-blaming fairly common in these types of situations, especially for someone as young as he is? How is he supposed to know what to think? The first time I saw the film, I thought he was a weak performer, but now I realize that he's brilliant.
Laura Belmont, who like Cunliffe makes her film debut, is nothing short of jaw dropping in her performance as Jessie. There is no better acting in the film and no character whos actions are more interpretive. In the aforementioned rape scene, she tells her father what she likes as she undresses her. Is she trying to appease him, or does she not understand what her father is doing is wrong? There is another scene where she arranges for Tom to have sex. But the woman she chooses is older ("I could be your mother," she tells him). Is this a way for her to make sense of what is happening to her? And when she calls it off, is she protecting him in a way that no one else would?
Ray Winstone, who is more than capable of portraying vicious villains and psychopaths, is brilliant here. On the surface, he's an outgoing man and a good father. But of course he's hiding secrets too terrible to tell. And yet, we still feel for the guy. He is remorseful, and most who commit incest were sexually assaulted as young kids as well.
Tilda Swinton, an exceptional actress in her own right, has the least showy role, but it is a necessary one. As a character, Mum is completely oblivious to what's going on in her own home, but that's the point. Incest is such a secretive crime that most people don't know it has actually occurred (or are in denial). That's why it's so prevalent.
All the actors show extraordinary commitment to their roles, Swinton especially so. A few weeks before filming, she gave birth to twins, and she was willing to bare her post-birth body before the camera to portray a woman who had just given birth. Belmont and Winstone also appear in the nude, although Cunliffe only bares down to his underwear (going farther isn't really necessary in his case).
Tim Roth, who is an amazing character actor, makes a stunning debut behind the camera. This film is a true masterpiece; it's filled with brilliant performances from every member of its cast (including a young Colin Farrell who appears for two scenes as Jessie's boyfriend) and the story, as simple as it is complex, never missteps. He also has more guts than most filmmakers who take on such a painful story.
I've heard people say that this film isn't for everyone, and there is definite merit to that thought. This film is absolutely punishing to watch, and there are few films that are more difficult to endure. But I still disagree. I think it is for everyone. It's supposed to be painful; incest always is. If people see this movie, then maybe they will get their heads out of the sand and make it stop.
Raw to the point of pain, mysterious and strangely beautiful (the bleak cinematography by Seamus McGarvey is exceptionally good), "The War Zone" is a truly amazing film.