ACTORS ARE BLIND when they get behind the camera, or so it seems from the worst efforts of stars who leverage their celebrity to get into the director's chair. Far different is the case of Tim Roth (Pulp Fiction, Rob Roy), whose first film provoked much comment at Sundance this year. It provoked and offended, in fact, with its unstintingly brutal yet nonsensationalistic account of a family battleground in rainy, windswept, coastal Devon. Yet with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, Roth confidently allows his camera to linger on the bleak landscape, pasty English flesh (in abundance), and drab, colorless rooms—then simply waits for his actors to behave.
THE WAR ZONE
directed by Tim Roth
screenplay and novel by Alexander Stuart
opens December 17 at Broadway Market
Least photogenic among his subjects is Tom (Freddie Cunliffe), a homely, acne-scarred 15-year-old, who cuddles on the couch with his 18-year-old sister Jessie (Lara Belmont). A baby daughter's been born to Mum (Tilda Swinton of Orlando) and Dad (Ray Winstone of Nil by Mouth), eliciting both jealousy and fascination from Tom. He stares openly at his breast-feeding mother. "Someone's got a filthy mind," a friend chides him. Later he declares, "It's a sick world." Tom's adolescent fascination with sex and the female body is displaced onto the only women this maladjusted, virginal youth knows—especially after his London family's move to the isolated countryside.
Naked snapshots of his sister, purloined from her handbag, only appear to convict Tom as a dirty little voyeur. His sexual interest in Jessie is decidedly unwholesome (recalling The Cement Garden), especially contrasted with his loving parents and new baby. That he should then begin making insinuations about other people's sexual transgressions seems like a case study out of Freud. Referring to the baby, his baffled, enraged father asks him, "Is it an attention thing?"
Were it so simple. Roth's steadfast refusal to pull away from things we'd rather not see makes The War Zone a powerful, disturbing, yet never prurient film. He frankly acknowledges the intimate physical bond—second only to sex—between family members (here sometimes walking naked through the house). Each player gives a performance that can only be called courageous; Swinton displays a particular lack of vanity as a postpartum mother (as she actually was during filming).
Roth's film does belong to the dysfunctional family genre, but stands near the top for its sheer, honest intensity. "Do you want to hurt me?" a guilt-stricken Jessie asks her brother. "You'll feel better." But for both of them, of course, there's no feeling better—nor for viewers willing to face these unpleasant realities of human behavior.
VISITING SEATTLE to discuss his first venture behind the camera, a reserved, thoughtful Tim Roth explained how he approached The War Zone's wrenching story. "As far as victims are concerned, I just wanted to treat the subject with respect," he says, and "to portray an abuser honestly." He was determined not to depict that figure as simply a monster, since "it's been done a million times."
The War Zone's long, lingering takes were carefully planned and composed, Roth says, to "give the audience time to reflect," unlike many contemporary films in which the "constant barrage of cuts and noise . . . generally covers up a lack of substance." Indeed, much of his film's power comes from the quiet and stillness surrounding its horrific events.
Roth chose two neophytes to portray those events, explaining, "I like the kind of purity of using nonactors." Two and a half weeks of rehearsal evidently prepared Lara Belmont for her harrowing scenes, while of Freddie Cunliffe's role, Roth said, "It's a harder [one], I think, because he doesn't have the big scenes to play. It's much more internal."
The contrast between interior domestic scenes and recurrent exterior shots of the family's ominous "lurking" white house was intentional, Roth notes, "and it's also kind of terrifying; once you come outside you always have to go back inside, and that's deeply worrying." Because inside, for Roth's young protagonist Tom, there's no refuge, and outside there's no family.