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A Family Affair

The War Zone takes an unflinching look at the battles on the homefront.

In the early '90s, British actor Tim Roth made his bones with American audiences as one of Quentin Tarantino's anointed hipsters: After getting gruesomely shot to pieces in Reservoir Dogs and sticking up a pancake house with batty Amanda Plummer in Pulp Fiction, Roth's credentials as a bad cat were firmly established. When he stole the show as the foppish villain of Michael Caton Jones's period adventure Rob Roy, it was almost anti-climactic.

A very different Tim Roth stands behind the camera to direct The War Zone. This unblinking drama about sexual abuse and the vulnerability of young psyches doesn't have a wisecrack in it, and no one will mistake its darkness for some kind of postmodern irony. "Child abuse is an epidemic that infects families across the social spectrum," crusader Roth tells us. "If there is one abuser who sees the film and realizes what effect they've had...it will have been worth making it."

Don't expect a network movie of the week, though, or any of the evasions that implies. From its harrowing portrayals of two traumatized teenagers to its ultra-graphic depiction of incest, this is rough stuff, and not everyone will have the stomach for it. The film arrives in theaters without the expected R or NC-17 affixed because its makers declined to submit to the questionable scrutiny of the ratings board, which means that even some of the nation's bolder art houses could refuse to book it. And that would be a shame. Because Roth's uncompromising look at a violent disorder that too often gets the gauze-and-filters treatment in both the press and on the boob tube is not merely shocking, it's a beautifully crafted piece of work -- and it's disturbing in a way that gets under your skin and stays there. True, the film addresses a hot topic straight on, but Alexander Stuart's screenplay (adapted from his prize-winning novel) and Roth's interpretation of it owe more to Euripedes than to the supermarket tabloids.

The setting here is the rocky coast of Devon, in southwestern England, where an unnamed family -- father, mother, fifteen-year-old son, Tom, and seventeen-year-old daughter, Jessie -- has taken up residence in a stark white house on a treeless bluff. In the first of many good choices, Roth manages, with a camera angle here and a play of light there, to portray the house as the fifth character in a domestic tragedy. Set against green coastal hills and the crashing drama of the English Channel, this barren dwelling takes on the creepiness of a haunted house. Indeed, the two adolescents within, who are played with uncommon courage and great depth of feeling by Freddie Cunliffe and Lara Belmont, are not just prisoners of circumstance but victims of their father's evil spirit. When young Tom glimpses dear old Dad (Nil by Mouth's Ray Winstone) in a startling tableau with Jessie, the boy is naturally confused and infuriated, and his own raging hormones are thrown into chaos. The frightened girl is a tangle of defenses and denials. Mum (Tilda Swinton, who also appears in The Beach) is blithely unaware of what's happening in her household. In the film's early scenes, she gives birth to the family's third child, and she clearly has her hands full.

Almost from the beginning, we sense that violence will beget violence. But Stuart and Roth never cheapen the enterprise by reducing The War Zone to sensation. Instead, they examine the interior lives of their protagonists with tireless resolve and great sensitivity -- Tom's terrible loneliness and, later, his thirst for justice; Jessie's complex delusions, even the pigheaded monstrosity of the father. Like many an actor-turned-director before him, Roth has profound empathy for his cast, and he has helped shape two of the most powerful performances you will ever see from young actors. The feat is doubly impressive when you consider their lack of experience: A casting director spotted the delicate Belmont in London's Portobello Market, and Cunliffe wound up auditioning for Tom only because a friend was interested in the part. The rapport between the two kids, both making their debut, is a wonder to behold. The struggle of the boldly sexual Jessie and the conscience-stricken Tom to communicate is achingly real and puts to shame the mindless blabber that marks most teenage-anxiety movies.

In truth, Roth doesn't seem to need many words. He may be a first-time director, but his gift for building drama by purely visual means is highly developed: the rain pelting a desolate heath; a desperate look exchanged by brother and sister; the gray mass of a World War II pillbox atop a seaside cliff; the wordless brutality of a rape -- all of these advance this bleak tale with the kind of relentless energy you expect from an old hand, not a rookie. Roth's fluency is nothing short of amazing: As he turns a grim cautionary tale into a work of art, he barely wastes a gesture, an image or a syllable. For the daring and the stout of heart, The War Zone will be an unforgettable experience.

 
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