(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: 15-year-old Tom is brooding over his family’s relocation from London to an isolated rural hamlet. His naive adolescence is jolted apart, however, when he unwittingly discovers a harrowing truth about his family, a truth hidden by a deliberate, desperate silence from his father and sister.
– From director Tim Roth’s official unofficial site
In keeping with the cumulative theme of Z To A, The War Zone builds on the previous two films (Winter’s Bone, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) and their depictions of family life in isolation. The difference this time is that instead of a family defending itself we see it quietly caving in.
In spite of its quietness The War Zone is a film of undeniable power. Its emotional impact on audiences was so overwhelming that during a screening at the 1999 Toronto Film Festival a man began shouting and threatened to pull a fire alarm.
The reason why? Actor Tim Roth’s directorial debut deals with subject matter most people don’t want to talk about, view or experience: sexual abuse and incest.
The War Zone is one of those rare films that shows a social problem like it is. Perhaps that is part of the reason why Roth undertook the project, having been a survivor of sexual abuse himself. Incest and abuse are often relegated as plot devices, surprise twists or jokes. They are rarely confronted as a reality. Roth sets out to show how devastating and real it can truly be. He succeeds.
Unfolding from the point of view of Tom (Freddie Cunliffe), the story opens in rural Devon and details the daily life of his family: Dad (Ray Winstone), Mum (Tilda Swinton), older sister Jessie (Lara Belmont) and baby Alice (Megan Thorp). The scenes have an observational, fly-on-the-wall quality. The camera remains quite still. Sometimes the dialogue is intentionally hushed, as if we’re eavesdropping on something we’re not meant to hear.
We’re eventually exposed to things Tom doesn’t want to see. When he first spies his father abusing his sister, he retreats into himself even more- and he’s pretty sullen to begin with. However, he quickly takes action. It’s easy to understand why he approaches Jessie first, afraid of confronting his father. When she denies what’s happening, Tom is furious. He is angry at his father for the abuse, angry at his sister for allowing it to happen and frustrated that his mother is oblivious to it. As a result he becomes obsessed with proving it is true.
What was interesting was how I found myself empathizing with Tom this time around. Until now I’ve been fixated on the character of Jessie, who you can’t help but hurt for. However, my latest viewing brought Tom into startling focus. When the movie opens he is as “teenage” as it gets: an unhappy, sardonic and sexually curious kid who has been thrown out of two schools. His discovery of the incest changes and damages him in ways he won’t allow us (or anyone else) to see. He is suffering in silence, suffocated by being the only one who will acknowledge it. He’s afraid for his sister’s safety. He hates his father. With all of this weighing on his mind it isn’t surprising he reacts so poorly.
Tom’s main problem is that he thinks the abuse is consensual. There is a harrowing scene halfway through the film that reveals otherwise, in which the physical and mental toll on Jessie is shown in unflinching detail. It is a scene so gruelingly realistic that it exhausted everyone involved, both cast and crew. According to Roth, he feared Winstone would leave the production after shooting this scene (be cautious, link has spoilers). In the end he didn’t, and I have admired and respected him for playing his role ever since.
Just as striking is Lara Belmont’s performance as Jessie. Before appearing in The War Zone Belmont had never acted. In fact, she had been discovered by Roth’s casting agents while shopping at a flea market. Without a shred of experience Belmont’s debut was absolutely incredible. Jessie is someone who has incapacitated herself just to cope. All she knows of navigating the world is bargaining with her body. During a scene where Tom confronts her she apologizes by asking him if he wants to hurt her, then hands him a lighter. When he balks, she cries and says she will see if she can find someone to sleep with him so he’ll feel better.
In interviews Tilda Swinton said all she contributed to The War Zone was her post-pregnancy body, having given birth to twins four weeks before production. She is downplaying her contribution. Although Mum isn’t aware of the problem she is still a good parent, the most stable element in the house. Most of her scenes involve her checking in with Tom. What’s more, her realization of what is going on is brief but more than effective. You immediately know how she will react.
As I mentioned before, The War Zone is ruled by its silences rather than what characters actually say. Because of this so many interactions and details are left open for interpretation. Some viewers believe that Tom’s actions are fueled by his own incestuous feelings for Jessie. I don’t agree with this but can understand why they may see it that way. What I gathered is that Tom feels angry and disgusted with his sister but protective all the same. Furthermore, during his encounters with a nude Jesse I don’t see any evidence of sexual desire, more of a banality. She is his female counterpart because, after all, they do share the same DNA.
Others interpret the film’s ending as a continuation of abuse. Roth stated this wasn’t his intention, and I didn’t see it this way. As the camera ascends in the final scene we’re figuratively shut out of story and left in uncertainty.
Overall, not for the faint of heart. Despite this I’m glad this film exists. The War Zone is brave and truthful, and I appreciate it for those very reasons.
(Not surprisingly, The War Zone is another novel adapted by its author for the screen. From what I’ve read Alexander Stuart’s book has some major differences from the film version, particularly regarding the ending. For the record, I haven’t read it.)