Sunday 25 June 2017

The Current Cinema - The WALL (Doug Liman, USA). Reviewed by Max Berghouse

The Wall (2017). Doug Liman (Director), Dwain Worrall (Scriptwriter). Aaron Taylor- Johnson (Alan "Ize" Isaac), John Cena (Shane Matthews),Laith Nakli (Juba). Amazon Studios and Big Indie Pictures (Production Companies).

I think anyone who goes to a film festival longs to find a film which truly impresses him and at the same time seems to go against the grain of popular taste. I accept completely that selections for any serious film festival, like that of Sydney, are made with great deliberation and care. That doesn't mean any film is either good or personally appealing. I can't recall on what basis I decided to see this film and I can't recall doing my regular reconnoitre of IMDb. Had I done so, one individual reviewer* reviewed it as the "worst movie ever". To be as fair as possible, that reviewer was looking for a genuine war/action film and this was not what he got. At the same time that reviewer made very positive comments about John Cena, an actor virtually unknown to myself but the fact that he is a professional wrestler (probably the best training for a method actor in the world) and mainly a stuntman, speaks volumes for the values of that reviewer.

Two "snipers" are sent as a unit to inspect a site upon which construction of a potentially valuable oil pipeline is ongoing. All the construction workers are dead and it's easy to infer by the two snipers that this is the work of a sniper also. As the film commences they have already spent quite some time waiting for the opposing sniper to show himself. But he doesn't, so one, Matthews, advances down a hill towards the area, walking close by a mud brick wall which appears to be the only remnant of a school or a house or something. He is shot and grievously wounded by the opposing sniper and the other, Ize, foolishly rushes to his assistance, is shot in the knee and is only able to get some protection by manoeuvring himself behind the wall.

I made a previous comment about another reviewer (mentioned above) who spoke very positively of John Cena's acting. Cena is a big man and he does carry himself like a self-confident soldier. He is the one with the sniper' s bolt action rifle. Ize with an automatic weapon appears to be backup. I don't know enough about military technology to make any further comment, but as to acting, Cena gets a free ticket as he is largely mute and still, effectively "bleeding out". My initial thoughts on these first few scenes were that both soldiers would be grievously wounded but somehow evacuated and the bulk of the film would be dealing with the recuperation, probably with family back in the States. I didn't think a film about defending oneself behind a wall could sustain a feature film, certainly not as at best, a two hander. I was completely wrong.

Virtually the entirety of the film is concerned with Ize trying to stay alive in the face of a deadly and determined opponent. I have no knowledge of how combatants behave in battle, despite having read a great deal. My basic understanding is really derived from cinema which is not necessarily accurate. Even less do I have an understanding of how a seriously wounded soldier behaves when he has to remain in combat. Mr Taylor- Johnson’s performance creates for me a completely believable scenario. He is more or less hyperventilating, in a state of shock (from his wound), in real physical pain which is exacerbated by his having to continue moving somehow or other. He was originally a child actor and stage trained. I very much doubt that a mere "film star" could have handled this role, to make it believable from beginning to end, and can make it compelling, from beginning to end. His performance is simply masterly.

Mentally, he is tormented by Juba (only a voice which comes through the radio pack of the two men and the voice style reminded me enormously of the late Eli Wallach) and while the conceit of an enemy having access to the snipers' radio frequency is probably not realistic, in all the circumstances I found it believable.

But I think there is rather more going on in this film than a simple "ambush gone wrong". As the two soldiers advance downwards from the hilltop, we see them fully armed and ready. The desert "camos" and heavy boots are topped with all manner of equipment – "kit" – ammunition belts, radio equipment, flak jackets, et cetera. It makes the men seem bigger, almost superhuman, with their access to technology. During the film they comment that the sniper, who is clearly extraordinarily proficient because he has shot the six pipeline workers all in the head, only uses a relatively low technology bolt action, presumably sports rifle. Whatever it is (and one assumes that the gun mad Americans would know more about this, than a foreigner like myself), is vastly lower technology than our two protagonists.

Nearly all cinephiles are aware of the relatively late works of Clint Eastwood (in my view the most interesting director working currently in America). He often treats as his subject the American propensity to violence through guns and armaments generally. Most of the films of this character are greatly admired in Europe but have not done well in the homeland. This current film deals with the same propensity but adds to it that it can fail (sorry, spoiler alert). Not only is this film apparently critical of the American expectation of being successful in relation to the use of arms, it also comments adversely about the American reliance upon high-tech, in this case the "kit" carried by each soldier. Ize, wounded behind the wall, still has the appropriate first aid equipment to bandage his wound and uses a self-carried  tourniquet to quench the blood flow, even though Juba informs him that he, Juba, has shot Ize in a vein which means "bleed out" by evening. Ize before that potential bleed out cuts out the bullet in his knee which he does without anaesthetic and identifies the spent bullet as low-tech.

Fundamentally the two soldiers' confidence, and as it is shown that lack of patience, patience which is exemplified by Juba, is sustained by the reliance on technology. This technology – and other technology which appears late in the film – cannot sustain the protagonists.

Lastly Juba is revealed as an implacable and utterly hostile enemy whose unyielding determination comes from violent acts of Americans generally directed against him and his family. Not merely is he implacably hostile, he is very obviously educated. Better educated than his foes. The two soldiers, symbols of America generally, at least in the Middle East, as shown as naifs, not really understanding what they're up against.

This is not a great film. It's really a small film but it is simply perfect in what it aspires to do. I've already commented at length on the performance of Mr Taylor-Johnson and I think the overall creativity of this film which is so unlike anything previous by this director, should give an enormous boost in a very different direction to both men. This is so even though I cannot expect that the film will play well in Heartland USA.

* The review is dated 17 May 2017.

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