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Saturday, Sept. 2, 2000

'THE WAR ZONE'

The flip side of a feel-good flick


If there is such a thing as the polar opposite of a "feel-good movie," then "The War Zone" fits the bill. Most sad or violent pictures have some morsel of saving grace, a little cheating, a bit of happiness, that enables us to go home with a hey-that-wasn't-so-bad kick. "The War Zone" is darkness and despair until the very end, when even the credits start to look tragic.

It goes against every cinematic marketing law -- in fact, show it to a committee of Hollywood businesspeople and they're likely to start frothing at the mouth and take staggering, backward steps. ("No, no, not this, anything but this!")

"The War Zone" is Tim Roth's directorial debut -- yes, the Tim Roth of "Pulp Fiction," that cute British chap who sheds his accent at will. Who knew he had such demons stirring in his mind, and the talent with which he unleashes them onscreen? Watching this is like having one's nerves struck with a heavy blunt instrument until one is, literally, speechless.

At the press screenings, critics went in placidly and came out head down, silent, anguished. Their expressions told the tale: The world is scary. People are scary. Movies about family are the scariest of all. When asked for an opinion, one gray-haired gent whispered: "I don't think I can smile again for at least a week."

"The War Zone," based on the book by Alexander Stuart, takes child abuse by the horns and refuses to leave the ring until the pair are bloody and gasping for breath. There are no instructive passages on how these things happen, no hints on how to cope with them. There is absolutely no escape. All one can do is watch the ring, appalled but mesmerized, while some part of the mind frantically sends out a signal: "Keep calm. It's OK. It's only a movie."

Particularly harrowing are the incest scenes, which caused the performing actors to weep, one staff member to nearly faint and another to go home with severe nausea. Roth says in the production notes that this was the most difficult day of the entire shoot, but they managed to surmount the impossible and tell the story "in a way that drives the point home." Understatement of the year.

The story opens on a bleak, windswept house in Devon where teenage siblings Jessie (Lara Belmont) and Tom (Freddie Cunliffe) are spending their school break. Mum (Tilda Swinton) is expecting a baby and Dad (Ray Winstone) works out of home as a contractor. A seemingly close-knit and happy family -- but there is one terrible secret which Mum and Tom are not privy to: Jessie and Dad sleep together.

One day, after the baby has been born and Tom has been out shopping with his mother, he discovers the truth. He immediately attacks his sister, but she waves him aside. "Nothing happened with me and Dad. He's old. Why would I want him?"

Unconvinced, Tom arms himself with a video camera and follows Dad out to an abandoned bomb shelter where he had ostensibly gone jogging. Jessie is there waiting and Tom records a scene that is wretched and painful beyond words. But there is no way he can reveal this evidence to the world, much less to his mother, who is fatigued and fretful with caring for a newborn.

Meanwhile, Jessie devises a plan to shut Tom up: Get him laid and he'll forget everything. For this purpose, she asks an older girlfriend to seduce her brother but at the last minute, her nerve fails and she takes him home. She's too fond of her brother and only too aware of the repercussions of sex.

Inside the antiquated, isolated house the four family members begin to stifle, each in their own ways. Normally taciturn, Tom turns completely silent and watches Dad's every movement. Jessie is tearful and Mum hopes that whatever problems her children are having, they'll blow over when school starts. Dad (and this is the frightening bit) is funny, warm and loving. He helps with the baby, consoles his wife, makes meals and takes everyone to the local pub for soft drinks.

Roth cuts cast and dialogue to a bare minimum and lets the visuals speak for themselves: the winter sea, persistent rain, a sky that's cold and gray, like something drowned. Tom is skinny and suffers from zits. Jessie is pretty and buxom. Dad strolls around the house completely naked and Mum is cheerfully resigned to her postpregnancy shape. (Swinton started work on this role just two weeks after she gave birth to twins and was professional, not to mention courageous, enough to bare a body that fans of "Orlando" will gasp to see.)

All this lends a terrible reality to the picture that's somehow worse than a true-blue documentary. Roth had a message and he delivers it, with a vengeance. Enigmatically, "The War Zone" is dedicated to his father.

"The War Zone" opens today at the new Theater Image Forum in Shibuya. Call (03) 3357-8038 for details.


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