In its opening scene "The War Zone," a stormy, explosive drama of terrible family secrets, seems almost tranquil as a deeply sullen teenager named Tom (Freddie Cunliffe) rides his bicycle home through the green and gray, rain-swept and muddy Devonshire countryside.
This is intentional on the part of actor-turned-director Tim Roth, who invites his audience into Tom's modest, desolate home and introduces his outwardly ordinary -- if struggling and melancholy -- family. But the sense of pacific normality is tentative at best.
There is an underlying tension that rolls through this darkened house like a fog. Furtive glances are exchanged. Emotions are often swallowed, except by the father (Ray Winstone, "Nil By Mouth"), a quick-to-anger, quick-to-forgive, blue-collar bruiser. It feels unsettling to be in there. Not just for Tom, but for the audience.
It isn't long before we discover why. Returning home from the market on a rainy afternoon, Tom catches a glimpse through the bathroom window of his older sister, Jessie (Lara Belmont), and his father sharing a bath -- and more. He doesn't want to draw the inevitable conclusion. The audience doesn't want to either. But we know what's going on, even before Tom lashes out at Jessie and she instinctively insist, "It's not what you think!"
But it is -- and worse.
"The War Zone" is an excruciatingly raw emotional experience, in part because Tom's becomes frozen in his recoil. He has no idea how to cope with what he's discovered. Does he dare confront his father, now a formidable monster in his eyes? (Winston's hostile, bi-polar portrayal of perversion is intensely imposing.) Does he divulge this horrible truth to his fragile mother (Tilda Swinton), who has just given birth to a new daughter (and therefore potential victim)? Can he somehow save his sister from what he soon learns has been ongoing, psyche-scarring sexual abuse?
Adapted by Alexander Stuart from his own novel, this is a devastating, sometimes savage film, and first-time director Roth knows it. But he courageously holds nothing back in creating a vivid, wrenching portrait of incest and its repercussions. As upsetting as "The War Zone" is, it's even more compelling.
The movie wraps itself around you as you try not to watch Tom struggling with his overwhelming angst, which becomes more acute after he is subsequently shunned by his sister -- who in turn is locked in a pattern of vehement denial, self-beratement and self-mutilation.
Neither the innocently beautiful Belmont nor the naturally awkward and acne-pitted Cunliffe had acted prior being tapped by Roth from 2,500 auditions, yet they carry the incredible weight of this deeply disturbing film with ingenuous performances that affect you for days afterwards. Just to see Belmont shake uncontrollably with fear, anguish and guilt when her father and brother finally come to blows is enough to torment even the most hardened consciousness.
Just as remarkable as a first-timer is Tim Roth, whose directorial vision is so fully realized and undiluted that it resonates in every frame. Even in the movie's most shocking scene is composed with exquisite precession. Employing a single, slowly encroaching shot, Roth doesn't even allow you to blink until it's over. Throughout the film, but especially in this moment, his camera tracks turbulent emotions, rather than physical actions.
It's troubling to declare how brilliantly acted, how magnificent crafted, how astoundingly powerful this movie is knowing it is saturated with such haunting images and painful empathy (it's like the "Schindler's List" of sexual abuse). But if you think you can hack it psychologically (the film is already be used by incest support groups), I can say without reservation "The War Zone" is one of the best movies of 1999.
Run time: 98 mins
In Theaters: Friday 11th June 1999
Distributed by: Lot 47
Production compaines: Portobello Pictures, Film 4, Sarah Radlyffe Productions
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 84%
Fresh: 26 Rotten: 5
IMDB: 7.5 / 10
Director: Tim Roth
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