The War Zone delivers a great deal, having far greater impact than The Cider House Rules, which deals with some of the same sexual abuse issues. The War Zone clearly establishes director Tim Roth's directing credentials.
The film presents an alienated teenage boy's point of view. 15-year old Tom (Freddie Cunliffe) , his 18-year old sister Jessie (Lara Belmont), and parents have just relocated from London to Devon and Tom is not happy about the move. We see a bizarre dysfunctional family—the father spends most of his time on the phone and the mother, father, and sister openly walk about the home partially or fully naked. Tom is the melancholy observer and typically curious yet uncomfortable about sex.
One day Tom comes home and believes he's witnessed an unforgivable act. He confronts his sister about it and begins to gather evidence. After a slow start, this is where the film takes off. I was hooked at this point and curious to learn the truth—at that point in the movie things are ambiguous. Has Tom seen a sexual scene, misinterpreted it, or is he having his own sexual fantasy?
Roth does an admirable job with the narrative and shows that he can handle the visual medium. The cinematography is well-done, capturing some beautiful shots of the countryside and ocean crashing against the rocky English shoreline that mirror the emotions of our protagonist. The starkness and lighting of the cinematography also matches the dark, melancholy tone of the film.
The film moves very slow and challenges viewers. There are long stretches with no dialog, yet the silence speaks volumes here—at times accomplished with long painful studies of Tom's face. Other times the camera communicates through a barren shot of an isolated house, a meditation on the crashing waves, or through an uncomfortable moment within the household. Roth risks freezing the camera on a scene longer than most directors would choose—very much like Igmar Bergman's lingering facial close-ups. This same technique proves very effective in The War Zone, palpably adding a layer of tension to the invisible family battle.
You won't find a photogenic teen star playing the lead character in Hollywood style either. Instead, Roth aligns us with an average pimply faced teen to take us through a dark and disturbing journey of family dysfunction. This is something that independent films can do that Hollywood executives will never allow—they would demand a pretty boy to star and require an “up” ending.
If you're serious about film, this is a good one to check out. From the profound understanding of film technique demonstrated in his first feature, hopefully we'll be treated to additional projects from Roth.