Nudity is such a cinematic convention that using it as something beyond mere ornamentation is rare. The naked bodies flaunted in typical mainstream movies are generally models of Hollywood perfection existing solely for titillation, or sometimes for purposes of "emotional honesty" (think of Harvey Keitel in The Piano or Bad Lieutenant). In either presentation, the body is something to look at without giving much thought to what that body means to the character, or to us as viewers. Since nudity is so commonly--and often thoughtlessly or giddily--exploited (I'm not against either case as long as it's interesting), it's gotten to the point that we accept it yet often forget to feel it. The exception is when a director uses nudity to make us uncomfortable and confused. Some movies may employ naked moments to toy with our sexually voyeuristic tendencies for a brief instant, but seldom do filmmakers make it a thematic refrain. In Tim Roth's underlooked, daring directorial debut The War Zone, voyeuristic confusion is pushed to the limits, not just in audiences, but in the characters as well.
Based on Alexander Stuart's award-winning novel (he also wrote the script), Roth's picture takes the common theme of incest and complicates the usual knee-jerk melodrama with which the subject is so often treated. This is not Michelle Pfeiffer wailing in A Thousand Acres, but rather a remote, delicately detail-driven, expertly acted and patient feature that generates an atmosphere of horror in the most "natural" setting: an outwardly normal, middle-class English family. This family consists of the modestly named Dad (the great Ray Winstone), a big, cheerful bloke; Mum (Tilda Swinton), a pregnant, sturdy, stereotypical Mother England type; Jessie (Lara Belmont), an attractive 18-year-old priming herself for college; and her little brother, Tom (Freddie Cunliffe), a sullen 15-year-old struggling with adolescence, from whose viewpoint the story is told. Trying to make a fresh start, the clan relocates from London to the bleak, overcast Devon region, on the southwest coast of England, where they live as a close-knit unit in a rustic cottage. Close-knit is an understatement: After a new baby is born, Mum is seen openly breast-feeding, Dad immodestly walks around naked, and Tom chats to his topless sister in her bedroom. Depending on your own upbringing, this all seems either hippie-healthy or uncomfortably libertine. Either way, it's certainly not a typical narrative setup for the imminent moment we anxiously expect, but for which we still can't quite prepare.
When Tom glimpses a disturbing moment between his sister and father--invisible to the audience--he begins to investigate their relationship. His habitual teenage depression gloomily transforms into both morbid fascination and raw heartbreak. When Tom confronts Jessie, she initially denies everything. But the more Tom sees, and the more confused and disgusted he becomes, the more Jessie silently admits.
When the film's shattering centerpiece--an act we sense with foreboding from the outset--finally arrives, Roth roughly fuses the audience's point of view with Tom's, and it's clear that his brooding behavior is not merely the product of normal contempt. In an old army bunker perched above the sea, Dad quietly sodomizes his daughter, while Tom secretly watches and videotapes the act from outside. As seen from Tom's eyes--locked predominantly on Jessie's face--the act, shot in real time, becomes a nerve-wracking sequence of relentless horror. Naturally, we feel sickened for both Jessie and Tom, but there's something more there: We also feel horrible--and perhaps guilty--about ourselves.
Knowingly, cleverly, Roth has already presented the unquestionably desirable Jessie naked several times, which not only piques our interest, but also, since we share Tom's viewpoint, turns us on. So when we witness this brutal rape, our initial attraction oscillates to deep revulsion so wildly that Roth makes us feel like offenders. From this moment on, we, the viewers, become much like Tom: awkward, wounded, confused and pissed off.
In the wrong hands, this could have been cheaply exploitative, like using an easy shock to gain resonance or fake depth in a character study. But Roth--whose static, painterly style has been compared to Bergman and Tarkovsky--has really done something unique. He subtly indicts the audience, along with the father. Without using a moral sledgehammer, both Roth and his talented cast (especially the remarkable Belmont and Cunliffe) challenge the viewer's sexual gaze and the movie audience's "normal" practice in watching nude bodies. He's not judging, but asking: "What are you looking at, and why?" Like the reality of incest, these questions don't have easy answers. It's just another concept that a deeply troubling film requires us to ponder in our own confused minds.
The film's apt title applies to the family, to the minds of all the characters, and to the human body. Here the body is a thing of bewilderment--a stifled temple that in its most perverse state is not even one's own. This movie is not just a warning call about incest; it is too personal and oblique for that. Roth has created a work of such disquieting resonance that just what he is up to remains difficult to resolve.