Tim Roth’s only feature film as director, The War Zone is a troubling, unforgettable drama about domestic abuse within a seemingly typical family who relocate to rural Devon from London.
As directorial debuts go, Tim Roth’s The War Zone packs a genuine gut-punch. Its themes of domestic angst, familial breakdown and incest are not for the faint of heart. I’d go as far to say the film’s potency is such that it evokes a reaction unrealised before when watching a movie. At the very least, Roth must be commended for tackling such a tough subject matter, doing so with an underlining ambiguity that disquiets and infuriates. His approach is refreshing in its lack of preaching and dispiriting in its lack of equilibrium. It’s almost directionless. That would be a criticism were it not for the director’s subtle comment on the childhood abuse prevalent within this seemingly typical nuclear family, his approach reinforcing the scarcity of reason and the devastation of consequence.
Certainly, this isn’t a film you “enjoy”. Indeed, my initial reaction was one of detachment. I wrongly believed this family’s move from the city to a rural retreat would be the catalyst for rising tensions as the hustle and bustle of urban London is swapped for rural boredom. But that never transpired and I was left wondering where Roth and his writer Alexander Stuart, whose book the film is based on, were going with this. The biggest revelation, perhaps, is that the antagonist within this domestic hell has been there the entire time. In the city, it was there. In the countryside, it is there. What’s most unsettling is Roth’s aversion to exposition or explanation. And that’s indicative of his approach: restrained, almost aloof, never pining for sympathy.
At times Roth’s style is too distant, too cold. One scene sees 15-year-old Tom’s (Freddie Cunliffe) sexual awakening awkwardly cut short after his sister Jessie (Lara Belmont) backs out of a scheme for her friend to take his virginity having set them up in the first place. It’s evocative in that it examples the siblings’ perverse sexual awakening but the introduction of a third party is an artificial distraction from the intimacy of this brother and sister’s strained interpretation of sex.
The actor-turned-director also makes the decision to shoot in a wide, 2.35:1 format which perhaps isn’t best suited here, even if there are moments when Roth utilises the expanse of the frame to further underline the isolation of this family’s new rural home and the dreary, grey skies that hang above it. Another minor misstep appears in the shape of Simon Boswell’s score, its oddly melodramatic overtures out of tune with Roth’s determination to avoid overly dramatising this inherently powerful story.
Conversely, the director gets his casting spot-on. I’m sure it helps having friends in the industry – Tilda Swinton and Ray Winstone adding gravitas to The War Zone – but they’re not the film’s best casting decisions. Bringing newcomers Freddie Cunliffe and Lara Belmont in to play the teenage siblings highlights both Roth’s perception of acting talent and courage to work with inexperience. It works on two levels – Cunliffe and Belmont aren’t recognisable faces so the ordinariness of their struggle is more impactful. They’re also raw talents, the director drawing on their fledgling approach to deliver credible, fragile heartache that is especially evident in Belmont’s memorable performance.
Roth’s courageousness to tackle the subject of incest may also be his downfall as a director. He hasn’t made a film since (at the time of writing, that’s a span of 18 years). The War Zone is completely uncommercial; an aversion to typical narrative sensibilities and resolution making an uncomfortable experience even more exhausting. But it’s potent, caustic British cinema that never needs to stretch itself to deliver that emotional blow. And it will hit you – hard.