So often does Catherine Keener play snappish or smart-mouthed characters that it’s startling to see her behaving so tired and ragged throughout much of War Story. The actress stars as Lee, a photojournalist holing up in Italy while quietly reeling from the death of a colleague. This information is revealed very slowly by director Mark Jackson, who co-wrote the film with sometime-novelist, former Futurama scribe, and daughter of political royalty, Kristin Gore. The first 10 minutes of the movie contain very little dialogue, and not much happens for the subsequent 20.
Jackson fills this stretch of uneventful time with scenes of Lee ignoring phone calls, re-arranging hotel room furniture, and doing her best to shut out the rest of the world. Jackson, in turn, tries his best not to look away; often War Story seems to only cut when logistically necessary. This is established from the film’s first moment, in which Lee walks down some steps amid swarming reporters and gets into a waiting car. Rather than following the character, Jackson fixes the camera inside the car and allows all of the action beforehand to happen in the background, out of focus. This happens on a smaller scale throughout the first half hour: Lee pursues solitude while the details of the world around her—a couple having sex in the next room over, a cat wandering past her hotel window—stay blurry and indistinct.
A third of the way through the movie, a background figure does make the transition into Lee’s life. Out on the streets of Sicily, Lee recognizes Hafsia (Hafsia Herzi), a refugee she once photographed in Libya, and the movie ostensibly becomes about their relationship as Lee attempts to offer her help. Their bond is tentative, heavy on quiet and rueful smiles; even after overcoming her initial reluctance, Hafsia remains somewhat opaque. This is both interesting for the way it subverts expectations about how these two people might interact, and frustrating because there aren’t very many characters in the movie.
There aren’t very many conversations, either. Jackson and Gore resist them at every turn, instead privileging long takes of Keener alone and plenty of handheld following shots capturing bits of talk between her and Herzi. So much of the movie takes place in moments designed to look stolen that when it pauses for a semi-traditional dialogue scene, cutting between one-shots of Lee and her old friend Albert (Ben Kingsley), the sequence feels almost uncomfortably direct. (It’s Kingsley’s second of two scenes in the movie, and his first plays out entirely in a single super-wide shot).
Jackson’s technique is undercut, if only a little, by story and characters that sometimes cross the line from minimalist to just plain underdeveloped. Yet as a formal exercise that gives Keener the space to really inhabit her character, War Story is effective. Jackson uses long-take filmmaking with great subtlety: His bravura final shot doesn’t announce itself, instead unfolding as a gradual, three-minute realization.