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The War Zone

Some thoughts on a disturbing movie…

I watched Tim Roth's The War Zone last night, and it's everything the critics say it to be: shocking, intimate, depressing, utterly heart-wrenching, and so on. And I couldn't take my eyes away from it, not even during the rape scene. This was one of those moments in film when I couldn't believe what I was seeing: not only that the director would dare to present a scene like this, but that the actors (especially the young girl) would agree to do it.

I've felt this way once before, during the final rape scene in Kids (that both of these are rape scenes is, I feel, just a coincidence); but even though I was shocked and appalled here, I didn't feel as "dirty" and unclean with The War Zone as I did with Kids. The difference here, I think, is that Kids used the idea of audience voyeurism to shock the audience and make them feel guilty. It was as if the director himself engaged in a disgusting, leering form of exhibitionism – showing this scene to us in an attempt to turn us on and even make it seem erotic, even though the act being portrayed on the screen is a horrible crime, the ultimate in loss of feeling, caring, and humanity. (Short of murder, that is.)

In The War Zone, that feeling of guilt and shame isn't there with us…instead, it's a feeling of sorrow, of pity – both for the poor young girl who submits to this act, and the boy who witnesses it from his hiding place. (A discussion of how "willing" she is to go along with this isn't appropriate, and I don't want to talk about that; it's more of a subject for the discussion boards on surviving child abuse.) This scene is filmed in such a way that, even though it is very explicit, it does not seem like cheap exploitation. Rather, it's showing us the act, in all of its ugly depravity, because the only way for us to understand the truth of what is happening in this unholy union is to see it with our own eyes.

Why does this display of such inhuman and degrading behavior enthrall us? I think it's because this movie has the rare quality we only see every so often, that many would-be "depressing" dramas aspire to but few achieve. It manages, with silence, soft voices, and an unobtrusive, subtle camera, to hypnotize the audience and cast a spell on the viewer, so that you can just sit there and not want to move, feeling reluctant to even raise your hand or breathe too loud. Your gaze is glued to the screen, and this feeling is amplified by the soft, quiet "action" taking place on the scene.

Few movies seem to be able to catch this feeling; and the one that comes to mind, that I watch when I want to experience this feeling, is Taxi Driver. That movie contains no less than three scenes of this type: when Travis (Robert De Niro) is sitting in his cab, and his passenger is telling him that he's going to kill his wife (yes, I know that's Martin Scorsese); when he is buying his guns from Easy Andy the dealer; and when he is putting his weapons together. The characters talk in soft, slow voices, with voices barely above a whisper (or not speaking at all), and the background sounds are amplified (passing cars, kids playing in the street, the sound of a ticking alarm clock)…and the effect is utterly hypnotic. Scenes like this are immensely difficult to do, because if they don't come off right then they just become flat-out boring. But these scenes in particular are electrifying because they work.

Other scenes of this type include the scene at the beginning of Raging Bull (Scorsese again, I know) when Jake La Motta laments that he'll never get to fight the heavyweights because his hands are too small…and so he asks his brother to punch him in the face. Or the scene in Crumb, the documentary on R. Crumb, where Max Crumb deftly settles himself down on a bed of nails. I don't even know why I find this particular scene hypnotic…but it is. Blue Velvet tries for this effect, with the scene when Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) confronts Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) with a knife, though David Lynch uses blatant eroticism to charge this scene up. It's fascinating, but I don't find it quite as "pure" as Taxi Driver because it doesn't have quite the same effect.

The War Zone also has scenes of this type, when young Tom is confronting his sister Jessie and telling her that he knows what she's been doing. "I hate you," he says – quietly, understating, and this is a worse blow to her than if he had struck her with his fist. It's heart-breaking and utterly fascinating.

Another Tim Roth movie from a few years ago, Little Odessa, also tried for this effect. There were a few moments in the movie when it succeeded, too. That movie was interesting because it had long scenes of silence, with very little dialogue…and the background movements were amplified, to increase the effect on the audience. Most notably was the scene where an old man was grabbed from his bed by gangsters and taken out into the field to be murdered. There was almost no talking, but we could hear their movements – the scuffling of shoes, rustling of clothes, and so on – and by the time we heard the words, "Do you believe in God? Wait ten seconds, see if God saves you," we'd been placed into a trance.

Or at least, it worked for me.

The War Zone is one of those that dares to ask questions – and not answer them. The subject matter is such that there are no easy answers, and to provide some sort of an "answer" would be a retreat from the harsh truths presented here. I think that's why, at the end of the film, we aren't even told if the young boy did indeed kill his father, or what happens next. This isn't a film that gives us glib, easy answers (the father is arrested, the daughter goes into counseling, and everyone lives happily ever after). Rather, it makes us aware that this horror does indeed exist in our world – indeed, in the very town we live in – and that there are no simple answers. As poor Jessie says in the movie: "You just want everything to be sweet and nice, and it isn't."