Up in Arms on the Home Front


Though movies trade in sex and violence, it’s a rare film that faces up to the body as flesh—to its mottled colors, smothering weight, and all-too-evident mortality. In fetishizing the body, movies repress the signs of corporeality. The body was made virtual by the movies long before anyone conceived of cyberspace. On the other hand, the flesh, and the ambivalence we feel about it, is one of the great subjects in the history of painting.

In Tim Roth’s The War Zone, bodies look the way they do in old master paintings, and they inspire as much repulsion as attraction. The bodies in question belong to the members of a seemingly ordinary nuclear family: a dad (Ray Winstone), a mum (Tilda Swinton), and their teenage children, Tom (Freddie Cunliffe) and Jessie (Lara Belmont). For reasons having to do with Dad’s work, the family has recently relocated from London to a lonely house on the harsh Devon coast. No one except Dad is happy with the move, but no one except Dad has any power. Roth makes that evident with the first scene of the family in their small but comfy living room. Dad is the last to make an appearance. We hear him offscreen before we see him. His voice is like a magnet; it causes a barely visible shift in the arrangement of the three bodies already settled in the room.

Roth shapes his first feature like the most subtle of horror films. Something is amiss about this family, but we don’t know what it is. Dad is an affable guy. He and Mum, who’s hugely pregnant, seem to have a loving relationship. When Mum sponges down Dad’s burly back in the kitchen sink, the kids shrink away from the unselfconscious spectacle of intimacy, but that might simply be a matter of unresolved Oedipal feelings. Later that night, Mum goes into labor and everyone bundles into the car. Driving like mad, Dad loses control of the wheel and the car flips upside down into a ditch where Mum, screaming in pain and terror, gives birth. The next morning in the hospital, everyone smiles at the new baby, but their faces are covered with purple bruises, red gashes, and black sutures. And now that we’re focused on the flesh, we notice that 15-year-old Tom has a terrible case of acne.

It’s Tom who guides us through the film. Tortured by adolescent sexual longings, Tom spies on Dad and Mum in bed (fat, middle-aged Dad caressing Mum’s saggy, postpartum belly is not a pretty picture, but Rembrandt would have cherished it). And he can’t take his eyes off his sulky sister Jessie’s big boobs. Roth implicates us in Tom’s confused incestuous longings and in his compulsive voyeurism. It makes us feel bad to look.

Films that deal with sexuality always risk an element of exploitation. Roth would have been in as much trouble if he’d never shown Jessie naked. Given his predilections as an actor, it was inevitable that he’d take a confrontational approach. It’s the strategy of confrontation that’s surprising. With its static, wide-screen compositions and its measured pace, the film keeps us at a distance. Because we can’t lose ourselves in it, we become extremely aware of our own relationship to the horrific story unfolding before our eyes. And no matter what that relationship is, it’s a harrowing experience. The style of The War Zone has been compared to Tarkovsky and Bergman. And while it’s true that the expressive, painterly quality of both the harsh, forbidding landscapes and the deceptively warm, closeted interiors have an art-film patina, the strongest influence on Roth is the late British television director Alan Clarke, who employed a similarly cool, distanced perspective in such hot-topic films as Christine (about teenage junkies) and Elephant (about assassination in Northern Ireland).

The ensemble of accomplished and untried actors come together as if they were indeed a real family. Winstone gives his most nuanced performance as the Dad in denial and Swinton, in a less demanding role, is just as subtle and brave. But it’s the kids who are the revelation. Though Cunliffe and Belmont had never acted before, they bring a level of concentration, intensity, and openness that would be remarkable in old pros. Roth knows how to get what he wants from his actors but he also respects their freedom and trusts what they bring.

The horror at the heart of the film is incest. Peering through the slit in a disused World War II bunker perched high on a cliff overlooking the shore, Tom sees his father anally rape his sister. The sight more than fulfills his—and our—worst expectations. But there’s more unraveling to come. The War Zone is a brutal, unsparing, high-risk film. It forces us to look at things we’d prefer not to examine closely. We may not want another film about incest, but there’s a necessity about this one that won’t be denied.

** The subject of The Cider House Rules is also sex and the family, and director Lasse Hallstrom brings a somewhat arty European approach to the material, but the comparison to The War Zone ends there. This adaptation of John Irving’s novel about an orphan boy coming of age on the home front during World War II is as paternalistic, puffed-up, and dull as a congressional debate about abortion rights.

Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) is the favorite child of Dr. Larch (Michael Caine), an orphanage director and obstetrician rolled into one. He not only delivers babies, he takes them off the hands of mothers who don’t want or can’t care for them, and he unquestioningly performs abortions if that’s what a woman chooses. Dr. Larch is something of a saint but his addiction to sniffing ether makes him less than a perfect prochoice advocate.

Larch wants Homer to follow in his footsteps, but Homer refuses to assist with abortions. To avoid a confrontation (and also because he’s fallen in love), Homer goes out into the wide world in search of knowledge and independence. He learns that human relations are messy and complicated, and that one must take responsibility for one’s actions based on a moral code that’s not necessarily in tune with prescribed social rules posted on the cider house wall. He performs an abortion on an incest victim and in doing so becomes a man.

The Cider House Rules is being passed off as a film in support of a woman’s right to choose, but its implicit position is that abortion is wrong except in cases of rape or incest. Worse still, it makes men the arbiters of what happens to a woman’s body and the abortion debate a defining factor of manhood. The mind boggles at the plethora of patriarchal assumptions. Hallstrom’s direction signals every turn of the plot five minutes before it occurs, and the actors are all dreadfully earnest, none more so than Maguire, who seems to be channeling Forrest Gump.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 7, 1999

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