Defiance is the kind of picture that Hollywood tends to trowel out every December as Oscar bait and pretend like they've been making all year long. It tells a noble true story in handsome autumnal tones; it lets its stars do some Acting with a capital A; and it concerns a little-known but inspiring story from our favorite movie war, WWII. Defiance didn't do much at the box office (it was caught in a glut of Nazi-themed movies late in the year--every time its trailer ran, I thought I was about to see an ad for Valkyrie) and was all but ignored come February. Watching it now, it's easy to see why it made so little noise. There's nothing obviously wrong with it--on the surface, it's well-constructed and competently directed and tells an important story. But it's all surface. For such an emotional tale, it's surprisingly passionless; the resulting product has a perfunctory, formulaic quality.
The screenplay, by director Ed Zwick and Clayton Frohman, tells the true story of the Bielksi brothers, a quartet of Jewish farmers in Nazi-occupied Poland who created a forest refuge for other persecuted Jews. In the forest, they created a collective where all inhabitants worked, built, hunted, and protected the group; they learned to shoot and prepared to fight. Oldest brother Tuvia (Daniel Craig), stern and businesslike, becomes the practical and moral leader of the group; Craig's work is straight-forward and no-nonsense, with flashes of soulful rage (though his character's extended second-act sickness also cripples Craig's ability to hold the story's focus). Zus (Liev Schreiber, in a robust, fully felt performance) is less nuanced in his views--he wants full-throated revenge for the deaths of his family, and is less interested in Tuvia's good intentions.
Most of the film's personal drama comes from Tuvia and Zus' conflict; in the early sections, Tuvia keeps returning to the forest with more and more people ("Now you are Moses, eh?" an unsmiling Zus asks), while they later disagree about the degree and severity of their actions ("You don't have the stomach to do what must be done," Zus notes). Eventually, Zus takes the more direct route of fighting with the Russian army. Unfortunately, this removes Schreiber from too much of the film (his absence is felt), and he and Craig's eventual reunion pays off their conflict so half-heartedly that it almost feels like an afterthought ("Oh, yeah," Zwick seems to have realized, "we've gotta tie that up too...")
Zwick and Frohman's screenplay is frequently undercooked. Its opening scene shows the brothers discovering that the Nazis have murdered their parents; it plays all the right notes, but it's tough to engage emotionally because we don't yet know these men (we just know that their family is dead). Jamie Bell, as third brother Asael, is a bit of a cipher--his role is woefully underwritten, though it's like Hamlet compared to the wafer-thin characters of the three brothers' love interests. The script plods a bit from scene to scene and has difficulty pulling its threads through the narrative.
However, Zwick's sturdy direction occasionally covers the troubles in his script; some of his set pieces are involving and well-done. A late night killing spree sequence is blunt, brutal, and effective, while the brothers' raid on a police station to steal necessary medicine is stylishly rendered. Eduardo Serra's dreamy cinematography beautifully captures a winter wedding, while Zwick slyly undercuts the cheeriness of that scene by intercutting it with Zus and the Russian army in the midst of a particularly ruthless attack. The battle sequences towards the picture's end are well-executed (we'd expect nothing less from the director of Glory and The Last Samurai), and a battlefield death scene is pat and expected, but still does the job. However, those flashes of ingenuity aren't enough to put the film over.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Paramount's 1080p MPEG-4 AVC encode is sharp if a tad uneven. Some of the individual 1.78:1 frames are magnificent (a vast, beautiful wide shot of the village changing home camps; the establishing shot of the aforementioned snowy wedding), and the detail is terrific (particularly in the weathered and unshaven faces of Schreiber and Craig). However, the vivid greens of the woods threaten to take over the image, an issue that is perhaps overcorrected by liberal addition of blue and grey tints. That coloration, particularly when coupled with the olives and browns of the costuming, sometimes gives the picture a washed out, slightly drab look. Much of this was indubitably present in the original image, but it still doesn't make for a particularly notable video presentation. That complaint aside, the contrast is good and black levels are rich, with crisp edges, some fine grain, and no evidence of DNR.
The 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track is also a bit of a mixed bag. Dialogue, music, and sound effects are clear and well-modulated, but most of the directional effects are concentrated to the front channels. The mix doesn't get truly immersive until the climax, when the machine-gun fire and explosions of the battle sequence really bring the surround channels to life. It's not a bad track, by any stretch, but the film's surplus of outdoor scenes would seem to offer up more opportunities for an active mix than are taken advantage of.
French and Spanish 5.1 tracks are also offered, as are English, English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Director Zwick contributes a scene-specific Audio Commentary for the film; it's informative but a little dry, and strangely formal (it sounds in places, particularly towards the beginning, like he's reading from prepared remarks).
The disc's most expansive extra is "Defiance: Return to the Forest" (26:05). This fairly typical promo-style featurette offers up the expected mix of cast and crew interviews, film clips, and behind-the-scenes footage. The interviews give Zwick the opportunity to pontificate on the themes of the picture (some are more clearly articulated here than in the film proper), as well as allowing us to marvel at the solid accent work of American Schreiber and Brits Craig and Bell. However, the interviews are somewhat amateurish--the image looks pro-sumer at best, but (more distressingly) the audio sounds like it was recorded on a camera mic (it's of very low fidelity, with an abundance of background noise).
A series of shorter featurettes follow. "Children of the Otriad" (13:42) interviews the descendants of the Bielksi family, with the help of archival photos and clips from the film. It's a well-assembled piece that captures some of the emotion that the film itself often misses. "Scoring Defiance" (7:00) goes to the studio, where renowned composer James Newton Howard is seen conducting and recording the film's Oscar-nominated score; he, Zwick, and featured violinist Joshua Bell are interviewed. Finally, "Bielski Partisan Survivors" (1:58) is a brief montage of beautiful black and white photos (taken by Zwick) of some of the group's survivors. All of the featurettes are presented in HD.
A pair of Theatrical Trailers round out the bonus features.
Like Zwick's last effort, the vastly overrated Blood Diamond, Defiance is rather a paint-by-numbers affair. His direction is professional but strangely detached; in his attempt to tell the story without flourishes he's drained it of the necessary emotion. As a result, the film is specious and lacking resonance; it looks good, and it goes through the paces, but it never really draws us in.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.