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With: Ray Winstone, Lara Belmont, Freddie Cunliffe, Tilda Swinton, Colin Farrell, Aisling O'Sullivan, Kate Ashfield
Written by: Alexander Stuart, based on his novel
Directed by: Tim Roth
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, some involving molestation, and for nudity, language and a scene of violence
Running Time: 98
Date: 01/29/1999

The War Zone (1999)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Bad to the 'Zone'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Decorated with chilly winds rushing past an ominously still widescreen landscape of wet grays and dead greens, Tim Roth's The War Zone reaches a level of pain that few filmmakers dare to even think about. It's a brilliant film that, if you do yourself a favor and go see it, you will never forget.

The War Zone takes on a tough subject -- sexual abuse and incest -- and does it well. Newcomer Freddie Cunliffe stars as a sullen, pimple-ridden, awkward 15-year-old who begins to suspect something is going on with his 17-year-old sister (another newcomer, Lara Belmont) and their father. The family has just moved from London to the sticks, Devon, England. The father is played by Ray Winstone (from 1994's Ladybird, Ladybird and 1997's Nil By Mouth) and the mother by Tilda Swinton (1993's Orlando).

Near the beginning of the film, the mother is pregnant, and as the family drives her to the hospital, the car accidentally overturns. The mother has the baby right there in the road. One can't help thinking of the karmic disaster of such a birth. Indeed, there is a final twist so horrible that my brain almost couldn't accept it. I felt like one of the characters in the movie, in denial, rather than a smart-ass audience member who was two jumps ahead of the characters.

The family lives in a lone house on a dreary, wet field that overlooks a cliff. Near the cliff is an abandoned cement bunker. It's in that bunker that horrible things happen. Roth shows us the entire horror, centered in the middle of a dark frame lit by two ominous eye-like windows. It gives us the distance we need, but it also assumes that we have the strength to handle it. It's a delicate balance and Roth pulls it off stunningly.

Before now, the year's best directorial debut was contributed by actor-turned-director Joan Chen with Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl. Now Roth, another actor-turned-director, gives her a run for her money with The War Zone. Strangely enough, both Xiu Xiu and The War Zone deal with horrifying subject matter and look at it head-on and both movies succeed in winning over audiences by giving them some space. Chen offered us lovely, colorful rolling hills as the backdrop of her film and Roth shows us a large empty frame, allowing us a measure of actual physical space between us and its subject matter.

High praise should be given to all four actors, especially the two newcomers, for bringing their bravery to the screen, and for making it emotionally true. The same goes for Roth, who is best known for playing unsavory bad guys in such films as Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), and Rob Roy (1995). Like Chen, he has shattered our narrow image of him and emerged as a powerful new filmmaker.

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