Tough, bleak, and unencumbered by actor-turned-director hubris, Tim Roth’s first feature, The War Zone (opening December 10), is anything but a vanity project. An adaptation of Alexander Stuart’s 1989 novel about a family shattered by incest, the film handles potentially exploitative material with necessary rigor and an almost unbearable directness. The War Zone‘s protagonist, 15-year-old Tom (Freddie Cunliffe), has just moved with his family from London to remote Devon when his hormonal restlessness collides with—and is unimaginably complicated by—the discovery that his father (Ray Winstone) and older sister (Lara Belmont) are having an incestuous relationship.
Given the flamboyance of its director’s hard-man persona, the austerity of The War Zone can’t help but come as a shock. “Believe me, this is not a film I wanted to make,” says Roth. “But the book broke my heart, and that’s all it took. This was not an easy decision. I didn’t want to expose my family to this subject, and now I’m going to be talking about it for the rest of my life.” But Roth says he has no regrets, given the overwhelming response so far on the festival circuit (postscreening Q&A’s typically go on “until they kick me out”). “With abused people coming out of the audience and talking to me, sometimes [talking about it] for the first time in their lives, how could I regret anything? I’d been around victims all my life. The closest people to me, with the exception of my children and my wife, are victims of this, and they worked on the script and helped us through the process, making sure we were telling the truth.”
Rejecting the glib, confessional talk-show take on abuse, The War Zone is concerned neither with assigning blame nor providing catharsis. Roth says its seeming opacity was not only deliberate but the very point of the film. “If I were to show what motivates the abuser, then I would have betrayed the nature of abuse. Our problem with abuse is: We don’t know. I’m not going to insult the audience’s intelligence by saying, here’s an answer to everything that you want. I’m sick of it, done it myself, been in those films. The victims don’t know why, and sometimes the abusers don’t either—maybe they just like to put their penises inside small, fragile people. I don’t know.”
The quiet horror of the film mounts against a backdrop of improbable grandeur, Seamus Garvey’s elegant, precise widescreen cinematography allowing time for ambiguities to form and hang thick in the air. The lush beauty may seem incongruous, but Roth insists, “If you have these very real nonperformances—all acting but no visible ‘performances,’ I mean, the kids could be your kids—and then you shoot it like a movie, not just like a movie, but like cinema, I think it makes the pain worse. A documentary style would have sidelined the issue. You could then put it in a corner and make it a documentary—not my life, not possibly my life.”
Roth says that coming to terms with the material was “a growing-up process for me.” As a first-time director, he says, “There was the temptation to show off, but I got rid of it. I don’t need to draw attention to myself—I’ve been in this business too long for that. If you look at the screenplay, there’s all sorts of camera trickery going on, and you know what? It was crap. But I thought it would make me look like a filmmaker. In terms of the design, we were going to change the geography of the entire house—whenever an emotional thunderbolt came, the geography would have completely changed and Tom would have been confused. We were building all these different rooms. But I always said from the beginning, if it starts to seem like arty bullshit, we will stop. And we did. As soon as I saw what the actors were doing—especially Lara and Freddie—I thought, why would I screw them out of this?”
Roth cast newcomers Belmont and Cunliffe from Polaroids. She was discovered while shopping at a street market; he had accompanied a friend to a casting call. The casting directors saw about 2500 people, and “the only brief was, no actors. The other rough idea I gave them was they should find me my Kes, as in the Ken Loach movie, and my Linda Manz, from Terrence Malick’s film [Days of Heaven].”
The War Zone was critically savaged when it opened in Britain last summer. That the film isn’t afraid to pose difficult questions—and worse, declare them unanswerable—left it open to reactionary attacks, and Roth is still stinging from the viciousness of some of the reviews. “It was quite extraordinary. I try not to read reviews, but I broke the rule because I was worried about how they were going to treat the kids. But after a while, I knew they were going for me, and I’m used to it. I would like to know why, though. I’m a visible and easy target, but it can’t be just that. By directing something, you really are deeply within it, more so than you ever would be as an actor, and I’d forgotten what that felt like—for it to mean everything to you.”