Warning: The following may contain spoilers.
You could be forgiven after watching The War Zone to think that whoever directed it was a seasoned professional, with its skillful handling of the most sensitive of subjects, and an almost unbearably tense tone. But in fact it's actor Tim Roth's first (and only) directorial effort, one that proves he should get behind the camera more often.
The name of the film conjures up images of wartime carnage — bullet-ridden bodies and more blood than can be measured splashed over the battlefield. But rather than that,the title refers to a more intimate battle, of emotions and hurtful truths amongst an ordinary, everyday family.
The subject of incest is so often misused in films; many filmmakers feel the need to get preachy or overly sentimental, either showing too little while using other such techniques as manipulative musical scores to get an emotional response, or they show too much and it becomes gratuitous. With The War Zone, Tim Roth and screenwriter Alexander Stuart (working from his novel of the same name), handle the subject with equal parts sensitivity and honesty. This is a brutal and harrowing film that successfully stays balanced on a tightrope when it could easily fall off into being misjudged. It very much reminded me of the work of Michael Haneke who, ironically, Roth worked with in the equally tense US remake of Funny Games last year.
Most of the film is set within a cottage in the south of England, and therefore forces an even more tense and uncomfortable tone out of the drama. The film starts out depicting an extremely ordinary British family, and you can sense that this was one of Roth's aims. This family could be your neighbours from three houses down, and the natural interaction between these four main actors is incredible in convincing you they're a real family.
Freddie Cunliffe plays the son of the family. He begins to suspect his father (played brilliantly by Ray Winstone) of sleeping with his sister (an astonishing Lara Belmont) after he sees him having a bath with her. Tilda Swinton plays the mother of the family who gives birth to a baby whilst hanging upside down after the family are involved in a car crash (one of the very few pointless segments of the film).
Roth understands that the camera picks up the most subtle of emotions and aspects of the scene, and he lets the film breathe. At a brisk 94 minutes (although it feels a lot longer than that, not that that's a bad thing in this case), it's amazing the amount of stuff Roth is able to fit into that time. Many of the scenes end with lingering, silence-filled shots which allow you to reflect on what's just come before. Whether it be the family having breakfast or the brother openly discussing the incest, equal reflection time is given and the audience is left to decide how to react instead of the film forcing you to.
The core point of The War Zone is not the incest between a father and a daughter, but the general notion of the power of protection a father has. Once he decides to step over that line he ceases to become a protector and becomes something else entirely. With the exception of one brutally explicit incest scene, the film leaves the viewer to make up his or her own mind about what might be going on at other times that we don't see, and how long this has been happening. Never is it preachy or manipulative — it lets the story speak for itself.
Winstone pushes his character past the typical child abuser we've seen so many times in dramas like this to make him a fully rounded, complex individual. Swinton is in the spotlight the least of the four main characters, but she once again proves she doesn't mind being put into the most unflattering light possible (the recent Michael Clayton was another notable example of this). But both of them are there merely as representations of father and mother. Cunliffe and Belmont do all the heavy lifting as the children (well, teens), and they make their characters equally as compelling and empathetic in their own ways.
The War Zone is the kind of the film that inspires debate and discussion long after the credits have rolled. Its ambiguity and lack of full explanation is a positive rather than a negative when it so easily could have been the other way around. Roth, who's known as a talented actor, proves he's got what it takes as a director, and since it's been ten years since this film's release, I'm surprised he hasn't directed anything else. He's crafted a devastating motion picture that stands as a masterful example of how this type of drama should be done.