Published Apr 01, 2000Tim Roth is a man possessed. His first film as a director, The War Zone, is a searing drama about familial sexual abuse, and in person, he approaches this topic with scrappy conviction. "Any abusers in the audience?" was his first question at the post-screening Q & A at the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival; he scanned the audience and waited a few seconds and then said, "Damn, I always hope to catch one of them off guard." This guy is clearly on a mission.
Roth's film has garnered the reputation of being unremittingly bleak and difficult, even by art-house standards. It follows the disintegration of a family that has just relocated from London to the dark, rainy countryside of Devon, where the trees are all blackened and ominous and the only place to escape to is an inhospitable shoreline of jagged rocks and crashing waves. This is no TV movie treatment of sexual abuse. There's no one-note moralising, no sick titillation; instead it's a wide-screen human drama, shot like something out of Tarkovsky.
The family in question seems troubled from the word go. The son, Tom (Freddie Cunliffe), is more than just a sullen teenager. His whole body droops; the mopey look on his face precludes any possibility of a smile. His sister, Jessie (Lara Belmont), seems tougher, but only because she's become all too adept at keeping secrets in order to survive. These two children are the central psychological focus of the film, and although only one of them is the actual victim of the abuse, they both end up sharing the same scars.
Roth and screenwriter Alexander Stuart (who adapted his own novel) keep a certain distance from the parents. The mother, played by Tilda Swinton, seems like she's got it in her to protect her children, but it never happens, for reasons that remain ambiguous. The father (Ray Winstone) is an inexplicable monster whose tenderness to his children seems genuine while his abuse seems unfathomable. The ambiguities are deliberate, because Roth doesn't want to explain away and compartmentalise the behaviour of the abuser. He's the first to admit that he doesn't understand it.
The craftsmanship that went into The War Zone is pretty much unassailable. It's acted with a great deal of courage and emotional veracity by all of the principles, especially first timers Belmont and Cunliffe. On seeing it a second time, the only real problem I had with it, oddly enough, turns out to be the inclusion of the key scene of sexual abuse. Roth has said that he and his cast fretted over this for a long time. When he showed the film to actual survivors of sexual abuse, many of them couldn't watch that particular scene, but all of them said that they would have been angry had it not been included. I felt it stopped the movie cold, and, for a moment, set up a sort of dead-end masochistic relationship with the audience. I still don't know if that very literal, punishing scene was worth it for what it added to the movie, but then again, I guess that's one of the things that's up for discussion.