CINEMA: Causality Of War

redacted.jpgREDACTED (2007, directed by Brian De Palma, 90 minutes, U.S.)


Coming off the highest profile flop of his career, a flat-footed adaptation of James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia, Brian De Palma is proving himself still spry at 68, with his camcorder-eye view of the Iraq War, Redacted.

It’s an audacious move for De Palma, not just politically (the film has O’Reilly and his ilk frothing madly) but stylistically as well, robbing him of his trademark slow-motion set-pieces, florid musical scores and his gliding tracking shots. With Coppola soon to arrive with his bare-bones return to roots, it is good to see that these legendary ’70s mavericks still have kept a little of that daring spirit alive.

Despite the advance hype stemming from its Silver Lion win at the Venice Film Festival, the film has drawn mixed reviews upon release, mainly for its less-than-convincing performances. It’s a fair assessment, and one that threatens to bring the whole film crashing down. It’s an odd problem: It isn’t that the performances are truly bad, indeed, I’m sure they would appear sturdy in a more conventional context — it is the camcorder medium itself that makes them appear too actorly. Never for a second does film summon the unrehearsed quality of amateur footage; even the less articulate characters speak in perfectly-weighed paragraphs, while any medium shot finds the cast all perfectly visible on their marks. Although De Palma has forsaken the sheen of a studio film, he can’t bring himself to dismantle the cinematic language he has spent a career mastering.

If you readjusting the expectation that you’re going to see something akin to a De Palma-style Blair Witch Project, you can admire the ingenuity of Redacted‘s set-up. Far from being confined to the soldier’s jittery, collapsing viewpoint, the film tells its story by compiling realistically faked footage from a French documentary, Arab television, a soldier’s wife’s impassioned blog and assorted other modern communications. By telling his storyredactedstill.jpg across shifting perspectives and media, De Palma brings home both the complexity of the situation and the fact that one man’s atrocity footage is another man’s victorious strike against the enemy.

The story is centered around a fictionalized account of the real-life the murder of an Iraqi family in Samarra, in which their 14-year-old daughter — inexplicably raised to age 15 here — was repeatedly raped, then set afire. The backstory is laid out by transferring it into that old-fashioned war-movie framework, showing us usual “types” such as “The Intellectual,” “The Psycho” and “The Diplomatic Sergeant,” each trying to hold things together. Yet as timeworn as this framework is, seeing these soldiers slowly crack in a wartime situation that is still unresolved makes for a particularly queasy sense of unease. The atmosphere De Palma presents, mixing boredom and sudden death, doesn’t allow the audience to prepare for its shocks, and leaves our nerves nearly as jangled as the shell-shocked soldiers when we see men suddenly torn into their component parts. De Palma wants us to understand how untenable situations lead to unspeakable horror, to slowly comprehend how in their fear these men are trying to recreate the horrors they’ve witnessed, transforming them into something that they think can control and manage.

This is one of the most developed ideas about violence that De Palma has ever offered, yet the film fits snugly within the director’s pet themes with its heroines beyond saving, the hero’s guilty remorse (De Palma is a good Philly Catholic boy after all) and his long history of unraveled endings. Despite its flawed execution, Redacted stands as one of the more unsettling and urgent films of this still-vital and most American of directors. It may be impossible to enjoy but you won’t be unmoved.

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