CAPSULE: THE WAR ZONE (1999)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Freddie Cunliffe, Lara Belmont, ,

PLOT: After moving to North Devon from London, Tom finds there’s little to do but wander the rainy countryside to avoid his family’s stifling cottage, until he discovers something dreadful is going on between his father and his sister.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Inarguably well made, it is also inarguably hard to watch. The War Zone plays a subtle game at the beginning, but the unrelenting melancholy mixed with something much, much worse isn’t weird so much as harrowing.

COMMENTS: For those who may have been wondering what a Lifetime movie directed by might be like, look no further than The War Zone. Tim Roth’s directorial debut (and, as of this review, only directorial effort) is unceasingly dreary and rainy right up to the point when it gets truly disturbing. An overcast aura permeates the movie—inside, outside, and tonally—soaking the characters and narrative with an altogether melancholy atmosphere that, like the rains of North Devon, never lets up.

Matching Devon’s somber disposition, young Tom (Freddie Cunliffe) mopes through the movie. A sullen teenager, he barely interacts with his seemingly pleasant family. When his mother (Tilda Swinton) goes into labor shortly after their move, the whole family takes a frantic trip to the not-so-nearby hospital. A car crash immediately followed by the miracle of birth seems to bring them closer together. However, Tom discovers that his older sister (Lara Belmont) and his father (Ray Winstone) may be continuing something inappropriate that began in London. Their cottage’s isolation and unpopulated countryside provide the two with opportunities to continue the tryst. Upon Tom’s suspicions being confirmed, things get even more awkward, and spiral into a nasty climax.

Bleak, bleak, and then some. Tom’s only escape from his life is bicycling around outdoors and spending time on the beach, invariably in the rain. He loves his sister, but hates her for what she’s doing. His sister hates herself. The father, given no name (like the mother), is an oddity. Until we know what’s going on, he seems an altogether swell guy—and even after the truth is revealed, Ray Winstone does us no favors by contriving a sympathetic performance. Shot by shot and muddled conversation by muddled conversation, Tim Roth puts misery on parade, never stopping for a break. This movie is dark stuff; straightforward, depressing dark stuff.

Having been among the few to catch this in theaters when it was released eighteen years ago, I remember it as being bleak; re-watching it the sensation was compounded by the DVD’s awkward display. Released as widescreen in the days of square televisions, my newer TV put a box around the film: its claustrophobia magnified by the black bars on all sides. And there’s some unhappy history involving its production and release. Ray Winstone nearly left shooting after having to perform a particularly wrenching scene. During the Toronto Film Festival screening, a man left shouting he couldn’t take it any more, and Tim Roth had to talk him down from pulling a fire alarm. The War Zone is very well shot, very well acted, and very well scored; this generally isn’t a problem, and isn’t one for this movie, per se. However, it does mean that anyone thinking of watching it needs to realize it will grab you forcibly and not let go until it slams the door in your face.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I generally have little patience for this brand of art-conscious dragginess, but Roth, there’s no denying, creates considerable suspense out of our desire to confront the forbidden.”–Owen Glieberman, Entertainment Weekly (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “skunky.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)]

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