It seems that certain types of actors, when given the opportunity to direct their own films, gravitate towards very dark, difficult subject matter: Gary Oldman made the junkie drama Nil by Mouth, Steve Buscemi the prison film Animal Factory, and Tim Roth directed The War Zone (1999) an incredibly bleak film regarding a small British family burying itself in a mound of lies and betrayal.
The War Zone introduces a father (Ray Winstone), mother (Tilda Swinson), son (Freddie Cunliffe), and daughter (Lara Belmont) about to welcome a new child into the fold. A viscous surprise on the way to deliver the baby sets a tone that lets you know that the rest of the film will be unrelenting. In fact, when the son witnesses an incestuous encounter between the father and daughter, it occurs off-screen, allowing our imaginations to horrify us by filling in the details. Later, however, the son encounters another instance and this time we see a cruel and brutally disturbing scene that reeks of lecherous power dynamics. The daughter is confused about sex, understandably so, and the son doesn't know what to think. The film mixes a complex array of emotions: Disgust, sadness, anger, guilt, and longing.
The cast does uniformly outstanding work. Winstone approaches the father as a character that, if the offending scenes were excised, you could believe to be a great dad. The horror is just how false that mask is. Swinson is sweet and trusting as the mother. Her short moments when confronted with the truth hurt. Cunliffe and Belmont, both first time actors, bring unusual depth to their roles. This is definitely an actor's film as the plot is really nothing more than situations and details which the cast takes and turns into emotional work.
As good as the cast is the film suffers from a lack to purpose. The acts displayed are totally heinous and indefensible and Roth does not portray them as if they had any seductive quality. However, his point seems to be that there is no way to fix a situation like this which, while perhaps true, leaves the film very vacant. You could argue that this is appropriate, but I think a more experienced filmmaker would have explored more of the aftermath and gone deeper into the ways that the family's life changes. At barely an hour and a half, The War Zone doesn't really get a chance to go as far as the important, tragic subject matter needs to go.
The video, while non-anamorphic, is very beautiful. Roth seems to have paid attention while working with such painterly directors as James Gray (Little Odessa). His muted color palette and sense of framing really make the film stand out. The transfer is crisp although I think I detected what looked like motion blur added to the image a couple of times. Other than that, the image is fine. A lot of care went into lighting the film and it shows. Many scenes are very dark and the spare use of light really has resonance.
The accents make it a little tough to decipher some of the dialog (that coupled with the frequent mumbling make it a real shame that there are no English subtitles) Other than that the Dolby Digital audio track is subtle and effective. The music by Simon Boswell is emotional without being maudlin.
The extras read better than they are. Tim Roth's commentary track suffers from long gaps and Roth's not too terribly exciting commentary style. On Little Odessa his comments were used as an addition to director Gray's but here he's the whole show. It would have been wise to put him in a room with the writer Alexander Stuart (who adapted his own book) and let them talk together.
There is also a short, not very insightful making of segment and a bunch of trailers, including The War Zone and other New Yorker Films releases like Fire, The Cement Garden, and Fireworks. Additionally, there are text screens with cast and filmmaker bios, and information about New Yorker Films.
The War Zone is a thoughtful and moving film about a very difficult subject which doesn't offer any solutions. That ambivalence is a strength, as it doesn't pander to the viewer with tv-movie intentions, but it also leaves you wondering what the point of it all was.