The War Zone
Gary Oldman and Tim Roth made their acting debuts together in British realist Mike Leigh's 1981 film Meantime, paired up again for 1990's Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, and directed their auspicious first films around the same time, both featuring the powerful Ray Winstone as an abusive working-class patriarch. Comparisons are unavoidable between Oldman's Nil By Mouth and Roth's The War Zone, but disturbing subject matter aside, their differences are analogous to explosion and implosion. The former, a frank and intensely visceral portrait of alcoholism, fills the air with corrosive language, while the latter, on incest, is marked by buried secrets and tense, foreboding silences. Set against the harsh coastal backdrop of Devon, England, The War Zone creeps into the suffocating quarters of an isolated family muted by repression and denial. The story unfolds through the eyes of 15-year-old Freddie Cunliffe, whose long, blank stares in the face of horrific revelations are as pitilessly unflinching as Roth's camera. From the nearly wordless opening scenes, it's clear that there's something unusual about his family's dysfunction, but when Cunliffe peers in on a sexual encounter between Winstone and older sister Lara Belmont, he's forced to confront the situation and his own hidden desires. Based on a controversial novel by Alexander Stuart, who wrote the script with admirable restraint, The War Zone is told with the suggestiveness of a great suspense film, which makes perfect sense under the circumstances. On a superficial level, Roth uses Cunliffe's discoveries as a way to ratchet up the tension, but given the tacit nature of incest, it's fascinating to watch these characters and see what they know or, more to the point, what they allow themselves to know. (Tilda Swinton, as Winstone's seemingly oblivious wife, is a remarkable study in denial.) For Roth and his actors to tackle this theme head-on would be courageous enough—Belmont's wrenching turn, in particular, is as emotionally bare as Emily Watson's in Breaking The Waves—but The War Zone ultimately leaves its mark with deep, scarring insights.