The War Zone
(United Kingdom, 1999)

One of the questions I get asked a lot about this film is whether I "like" it. To like something implies enjoyment, and that's not what The War Zone is about. So, in a traditional sense, I don't like The War Zone, but I think it's one of the most deeply shocking and affecting pieces of cinema I have ever witnessed. I wouldn't recommend the film to someone who is easily offended (especially by graphic depictions of sex and incest) or to someone who views the cinema exclusively as a means of escape and entertainment. But for those who appreciate being challenged, few movies made in the last decade can match this one. Incest is not a new topic for movies, but The War Zone is no soft-peddled Lifetime TV drama. Its presentation of the issues is gut-wrenching to the point of being almost savage. There is meaning and passion in this movie, and, if some of the scenes leave the viewer confused and uncertain, that's the point. The movie has many layers. You can delve as deeply into the murk as you want. Simple explanations don't work here. Certainly, Tom is repulsed by Jessie's contact with their father. But does he view himself as her protector, or is he jealous? And what about the scene where she almost "helps" him lose his virginity? Layers... All of the performances are incredible, and it's tough to say enough about the courage and raw power of Lara Belmont's work. One scene in particular where she is reduced to a series of wrenching sobs is simply heartbreaking. The War Zone also features a young Colin Farrell in a supporting role (he was an unknown at the time, and wasn't mentioned in my original review). If you're in the mood for something dark and serious, for something that takes the intelligence and maturity of its audience for granted, and for something that doesn't pretty up an ugly subject, The War Zone is damn near the best movie you can find in a video store. For those who can take it, this film is not to be missed.

Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
The film takes place in the rural Devon countryside, where a family of four has just moved from London. Events are related from the perspective of 15 year-old Tom (Freddie Cunliffe), who is unhappy with life away from the city. His 18 year-old sister, Jessie (Lara Belmont), has apparently adjusted better than he has. His parents (Ray Winstone, Tilda Swinton) seem happy and comfortable in their new home, and his mother is on the verge of delivering her third child. Then, shortly after the baby is born, Tom's world is turned upside down when he spies a covert sexual encounter between Jessie and his father. Tom confronts Jessie about the incident, but she denies it, accusing him of having an overactive imagination. He is not convinced, however, and sets out to learn the facts. The truth he must face, and its ramifications upon every member of the family, form The War Zone's core drama.

The title of The War Zone conjures up images of devastation and disaster, of broken lives and rotting corpses. And, while this stunningly accomplished feature debut from Tim Roth has nothing to do with traditional battlefields, it is every bit as harrowing as the first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. The destruction presented in this film is as graphic and shocking as anything depicted in the most unsparing war movie, except that the victims are not soldiers trained for combat, but children placed in harm's way. The War Zone is a devastating motion picture; it's the kind of movie that stuns an audience so absolutely that they remain paralyzed in their seats through the end credits. It does not deal in euphemisms nor does it hide the physical and emotional brutality of the act (incest) from viewers. What Roth has accomplished is nothing short of brilliant, but it is also incredibly daring, because the film has no commercial prospects. No matter how many critics trumpet The War Zone's merits, viewers will not flock to see it; the subject matter is too upsetting and daunting. Yet for sheer force of emotional power, I have not seen the movie's like in years.

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