Published Jul 07, 2015The consensus about Yann Demange's feature directorial debut, '71, is that it's a wildly kinetic and highly propulsive thriller. It's engaging; it's taut; and it's executed with a full understanding of the medium, its limitations and the format. It's even worthy of such dreadfully rote descriptions as "white-knuckle" or "pulse-pounding." The only real shortcoming is that of broad appeal, as audiences looking for quiet reflection, levity or emotional subtlety should probably steer clear of a movie that is ostensibly one long chase sequence.
This chase starts with Gary Hook (Jack O'Connell), a new recruit to the British Army. Taking leave of his significantly younger brother, he's rushed through a training regimen and thrust into the midst of a battle between Protestant Loyalists and Catholic Nationalists in 1971 Belfast. Initially, their mission to seek out weapons in the region seems secure enough, with youngsters mooning them and throwing water balloons filled with piss about, until a crowd of protesters becomes aggressive and pulls a gun from an inexperienced soldier.
Once a soldier is shot and Gary is left to his own devices, fleeing through alleys and homes, '71 becomes a protracted game of survival. Amidst the abundance of chase sequences and tense moments of close calls, Gary observes Loyalists making bombs under the guidance of the Military Reaction Force and becomes embroiled in an IRA pissing match, inadvertently putting at risk two helpful Catholics that help treat his wounds.
Demange's construct of an elaborate web of conflicting and contrary factions with various loyalties speaks to the complexities of misanthropy and paranoia amidst conflict. Though the politics are specific to the Troubles, there is universality to the survivalist ethos that propels '71 from start to finish. Even those that are unfamiliar with the history of the IRA — or are uninterested in the specificities — should be able to find some identifiable tidbits of the darker aspects humanity has to offer and invest in the success of Hook in his quest to escape this inner circle of perpetual violence.
What really works about this surprisingly effective set piece is how effectively it understands its own construct. For a single feature with a standard 90-minute runtime, Demange maximizes a deceptively simple setup and manages to maintain a tone and a pace throughout. If it were any longer, this could have worn thin, but each storyline is handled effectively, limited to its bare bones necessity without any indulgence or superfluous padding.
Though much of the success of this much buzzed about, soon-to-be-cult hit stems from the construction of intricately assembled and unpredictable action and tension, the subtle performances from the highly experienced cast keeps everything vital. And Jack O'Connell, who has been magnetic in everything he's done, manages to deliver a smartly subtle performance as a young man determined to stay grounded and keep his wits about him despite being surrounded by insanity.
Unfortunately, there's nothing in the form of supplements to accompany the DVD and Blu-ray combo of '71, but since the film itself is quite straightforward, offering engaging, albeit distressing, entertainment, this is perfectly acceptable. Still, it might have been nice to get some insight on the production and how they created such a claustrophobic environment for these characters to run around in.