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[whitespace] Freddie Cunliffe, Ray Winstone
Familial Fears: Son Tom (Freddie Cunliffe) and father (Ray Winstone) clash in 'The War Zone.'

A Test of Endurance

Tim Roth's 'The War Zone' is hell on the coast of England

By Richard von Busack

IT'S ONE THING to chill an audience and another thing to freeze its ass off. The War Zone is typical of an actor's debut as a director--Tim Roth, in this case. The film is consistently too much. The audience will feel like retreating, and those who retreat will feel guilty for retreating, as if they were cowards. (But isn't it the better part of valor to run from maniacs?)

The War Zone is based on Alexander Stuart's novel, a publishing cause célèbre in 1989. And the film looks like an adaptation of a novel that was the cause célèbre of another decade--as if it had become dated in the time it took to get it to the screen.

The film is set on the Atlantic coast of rural north Devonshire during a spring that looks as bad as most people's winters. An unsurnamed family lives in a small house, having unhappily relocated from London. The movie is vague about why and, for that matter, about what the father does for a living.

Dad (Ray Winstone, the rabid father from Nil by Mouth) runs a contentious business, whatever it is--he's always on the phone arguing or wheedling with customers. The house is remote, with evenly spaced dark windows and a muddy yard. Inside, the walls are lined with the kind of chintz paper that inspired Oscar Wilde's purported last words: "Either that wallpaper goes or I go."

And now there's a new baby on the way. Mum (Tilda Swinton) is huge with child and drinking heavily as the rest of the family members sit solemn and silent around the cheerless electric heater. The woman is so far gone with booze or isolation that she doesn't realize it when her water breaks. The tribe heads to the hospital, wiping out the car on the icy road, and the mother gives birth in the upside-down wreck.

Something is eating acne-plagued son Tom (Freddie Cunliffe), who smiles bitterly when he sees Mom pouring amniotic fluid on the kitchen floor. Exile in Devonshire, which seems like the coast of Iceland, is bad enough. Worse, Tom has observed his father taking a bath with his older sister, Jessie (Lara Belmont).

He accuses her of incest. The girl lies about it, but Tom finds photos that Dad took of her naked (bloody likely). Later, Tom tracks her to the room of the title, an abandoned World War II bunker on the coast. Through a gun slot, he watches his father ritually sodomize Jessie, who endures it on her hands and knees.

And here we see the gimmick of this film: a man having sex with his daughter against her liking, if not her will (she sniffles through the act, though it could be catarrh from the cold). It's sex-rape, according to both law and custom, in a steel box. Both are stark naked. Outside, it's winter in the Gulag Archipelago.

At this point, Roth seems to be strangling the lily. I have a feeling that if Roth had placed even a stained pillow in the bunker, the scene of damned incest would have been too soft-core for him. (Contrast Atom Egoyan's treatment, the aura of guilt and shame and complicity, in the much better The Sweet Hereafter.)

COMPARED TO THE BLATANT qualities of this sequence, the rest of The War Zone is full of missing details--it's not enigmatic but confusing. A trip Tom, Jessie and Dad take to London is especially puzzling. Roth's scenes of London consist of two views: an exterior and interior of a low-income housing tower, and the interior of a sterile hotel pub. London is better appointed than Devon, if just as hostile (the barman looks as if he wants to kill Tom, Jess and Dad, who are his only customers).

Later, back home, the nature of what makes the new baby, Alice, ill is also hinted at but not explained, and this detail is crucial to the story. Is Dad a stepdad? Stuart's screenplay has the father raving about how hard he's worked for two years to keep the family together. Why that particular number?

The War Zone is set in the mid-1970s. Does that explain why the family is so open about walking around half clad? No moral judgment here about that, believe me (nudists are fine fellows), but we can see how incredibly cold the house looks. Yet the members of the family flaunt their bodies. Swinton shows a postpartum physique, with big, rippling belly and leaking breasts, which is a shock, because she was a beanpole in Orlando. (Is it all her, or is it a prosthetic?)

Of the cast, I think Swinton is the most mysterious. She is pregnant, literally as well as figuratively, and roundly unglamorous, especially in the scene after the car accident, when her face looks as if an angry bobcat has clawed it.

In perhaps the film's best scene, as she and Tom sit at a table, the son burns at his mother's dumb complacency as she drinks her wine. Swinton does manage to seem infuriating, a different species--exactly the way parents can look when you're that age.

The War Zone is the sort of film that's customarily a 16mm, Steadicam-type project, but Roth's cinematographer, Seamus McGarvey, makes it look unique. In his repugnance at flesh, Roth is a veritable Francis Bacon, and I suppose that's an accomplishment. The bare skins of these characters make them look alien: their fat is yellow as tallow, and the nipples of the big-breasted Jessie are dull red, the color of raw hamburger gone bad.

In widescreen steel-blues and blacks, McGarvey makes the tormented characters look like dwellers at the end of the world. The remoteness is more believable than the lurid story. The extravagance of the incest is just excess. We can see how forsaken the characters are already, wandering on a crashing beach that's soapy with unclean foam. In the film's closing aerial shot, the Ice Age has returned. Devon's coast looks like an artist's conception of the surface of one of Jupiter's moons, all darkness, spiny rocks and cold, crashing waves.

If the story is implausible, the mood isn't. Sitting through the film is like spending 98 minutes in a meat locker. Roth had the courage to make The War Zone--if only he'd had the courage to deliver less of it!

The hint that this film has been overdone can be picked up from Roth's suggestion that watching his appalling movie is therapeutic to all the daughter-rapers in the audience. I quote from the press notes: "If there is one abuser who sees this film and realizes what effect they've had on the child they've abused, it will have been worth making." But if you aren't abusing a child, will it have been worth watching?


The War Zone (Unrated; 98 min.), directed by Tim Roth, written by Alexander Stuart, based on his novel, photographed by Seamus McGarvey and starring Tilda Swinton, Ray Winstone and Freddie Cunliffe, opens Friday in San Jose at the Towne Theater.

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From the December 16-22, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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