There’s a very good chance that even if you’re reading a site like this you’ve never heard of The War Zone. A title like that one would assume leads to a movie about death and destruction between two nations on a battlefield. But in fact it’s a movie that deals with something that is arguably more personal than seeing someone die in battle from a war of a fading generation. The War Zone deals with something much more taboo and something that most people will thankfully never experience in any real shape or form, and that is incest.
The War Zone was released in 1999 to critical praise, but due to it’s subject matter it received an expectedly small release of major cities and really nowhere else. One of the most surprising things you’ll learn about the movie is that it was directed by actor Tim Roth (Pulp Fiction, The Incredible Hulk). It’s the only film he had directed before or has directed since, and I get the idea he directed only that film because the story was something that resonated in him, and he felt the need to direct it. Roth discussed this in an interview with Charlie Rose that seems to have dissapeared from YouTube, but he said something to the extent of that he “hates the fact that this movie exists” because “it shows that these things are still occuring right now, going unstopped”. The movie was also written by Alexander Stuart, based on his own novel, that was inspired by the death of his son in 1989.
The basic plot of the movie is structured around Tom (Freddie Cunliffe), a boy of about sixteen or seventeen who is upset due to the fact that his family has recently moved from the city of London to the English county of Devon, where he doesn’t know anyone and misses his friends. By setting the story in this rainy, bleak looking countryside, Roth sets up the tone of the movie in the first few scenes. He has a father (Ray Winstone), who in the movie is only known as “Dad”, a sister of about eighteen named Jessie (Lara Belmont), and a mother (Tilda Swinton), only known as “Mom”, who is in the late stages of pregnancy with a third child. The movie sets up the family dynamic very easily. We get to know everyone’s relationships with each other through simple physical actions and words; the father is somewhat strict but is raising his kids to be respectful, and as such treats them that way. Tom and Jessie are very comfortable with each other and share a brother-sister dynamic that doesn’t feel like it was rehearsed before the cameras started rolling. The mother is taken good care of by the whole family due to her pregnancy and is treated in a fragile way. The family here is also very comfortable with themselves, because when they never find the need to put clothes that were otherwise not on at the present moment (the father in one scene walks around nude, as does the mother, and during a pivotal scene Jessie is fully nude during the waist up whilst talking to Tom). Taking time to set them up and their relationships ultimately makes the rest of what follows all the more harrowing.
One night the mother begins to have contractions and is driven to the hospital by the father with the whole family in the car. The car crashes on the road, but nobody is seriously injured and a baby girl is soon born to much joy around the family. One night while coming home from shopping with his mother, Tom reflects how nobody he knows lives in Devon and how he misses all of his friends from school. His mother tells him that the move has been hard for all of them but that he’ll soon get used to things. When they arrive home in a downpour, Tom decides to enter the house through the back door. On his way there he looks through a lighted window and sees something that makes him hide against the wall outside. The way the camera is positioned is smart because it shows only the side of Tom, looking into the light of the window at something that catches his attention, but we as an audience do not see it and it is left as a mystery, left only with the image of Tom staring into light and the sound of the rain outside.
Whatever Tom saw has clearly upset him, and he needs to find out what was going on. He confronts Jessie and asks about what he saw that night. We as an audience learn what it was as Tom asks : their Dad and Jessie, together in a bathtub. Obviously Tom can’t grasp what he’s seen, something so confusing and shocking. His sister acts as if nothing is happening that he should be concerned with, but he himself can’t find a way to properly grasp it. He realizes he needs to figure out what he has stumbled into. His sister is decidedly quiet about the whole thing and he’s too scared to confront his Dad. This leads to Tom needing to learn the truth once and for all about what is going on, and what leads to the most dramatic and horrific scene in the entire movie.
Known simply as “the bunker scene”, it is Tom’s ultimate validation of his suspicions. Armed with a video camera, he follows his father and sister into a bunker on their ocean side property to document what he has suspected for a period of time now. What he sees is something so horrifying and upsetting that it grinds the movie to a halt for a few minutes; he witnesses his father sodomizing his sister in an dank, gray, empty bunker room, capturing it on video through a hole in the wall. The father is getting an awful pleasure out of this as Jessie is kneeled over crying to herself, and even during this the father tries to calm her down. Tom runs off home and is mortified by the scene. I watched this movie by myself, and during this scene I had trouble controlling myself because of the horror of what I was witnessing myself. During the filming of this scene, one of the sound technicians almost ruined the scene because of his crying into the microphone. Ray Winstone apparently almost left production as well because he found shooting the scene such a difficult exercise. Also, during a screening of the movie at the 1999 Toronto Film Festival, a viewer became so distraught during the scene he had rose to his feet, shouted he couldn’t take it anymore, and ran toward the exit to pull the fire alarm to make the movie stop, but he was stopped by director Tim Roth and, according to people there, had to calm him down with twenty minutes of intense conversation. Even though Tom remains quiet for the time being, this leads to his pivotal decision towards the end and in a way much of the movie is the falling action from this one scene.
Then one night he is woken and told there is a problem with the baby, and is also told to get dressed to go to the hospital. At the hospital the father and Jessie decide to leave, leaving only Tom and his mother. Tom feels the urgency to tell his mother about what he saw, but is afraid to. The mother checks on the baby, and we see that she is bleeding, presumably the reason the baby is there in the first place. It’s at this moment Tom realizes he needs to say something, and before hospital staff arrive, he simply tells her “don’t let Dad near the baby” and leaves as the staff enter the room, much to his mother’s confusion. This scene potentially implies that the father was doing something even worse, by possibly sexually abusing the newborn child, and this thought may occur to Tom, but it is left ambiguous to the audience.
When Tom arrives home his father tells him that the mother called from the hospital confused, telling him what he told her before he left. Tom is ultimately trapped here. He has now revealed Jessie and Dad’s secret to the whole family. While the father confronts him, Jessie puts her head down at the kitchen table and begins sobbing. The dad asks Tom why he would upset his sister and Mom like this, and Tom says because it’s the truth. Ray Winstone exudes an odd feeling in this scene, as he asks his son repeatedly “why would you say that about me, I’m your Dad?”. He’s such a good actor and he delivers the line in a way that even though you yourself have witnessed the atrocities he committed, you almost want to believe he’s innocent as he asks his son this question. While Jessie is sobbing with her head down on the table, Tom takes her into her room. The father is yelling at him from the kitchen and his own room about how Tom won’t break up the family by lying to everyone. After trying to calm Jessie down, Tom takes matters into his own hands. He enters his dad’s room with a knife and stabs him in the stomach in one of the most brutal scenes of the entire movie. While his father is screaming in pain on the floor, Tom and Jessie stare at him dying before them and leave the house. They go to the bunker on the hill overlooking the ocean where Tom witnessed his father sexually abusing his sister, and when Jessie asks “what are we going to do?”, Tom looks back at her and, without speaking, closes the door to the bunker, as the movie ends to the sounds of the crashing waves below.
The War Zone is not an easy film. It deals with an awful subject in a dreary setting with actors who were lesser known at the time (look for a young Colin Farrell as Jessie’s boyfriend Nick), and as such is not a film that has had wide exposure, despite being very well crafted as opposed to most of the stuff released every weekend by major studios. As I was writing some of the above I began to tear up just thinking about the movie and some of the scenes present in it from their raw power. The cast is uniformally excellent, and both Freddie Cunliffe and Lara Belmont had never acted before, but due to their obscurity, they feel like real people and present a lifelike portrayal of brother and sister. The movie is told from Tom’s perspective, and as such the parents are known simply as Mom and Dad, which helps establish the feeling of being in Tom’s position. There is also an ambiguity to the whole proceedings, such as if the mother knew about what was going on, if the father did in fact sexually abuse the newborn child, and what exactly the ending means, left up for us to decide. This is the kind of movie I would recommend to anyone looking for a powerful experience, but strictly not to someone who is simply looking for entertainment and escapism for 100 minutes. And even with Tilda Swinton’s Oscar win for Michael Clayton ,Ray Winstone’s appearance in prolific movies over the past few years, and even with a well known and respected actor like Tim Roth directing it has remained unnoticed for ten years since its quiet, limited release, and I think that’s an absolute shame. It’s been championed by those who have seen it, however, such as critics Roger Ebert and James Berardinelli ,both who gave it four stars and the latter who named it the twenty-fifth best film he’s ever seen. The War Zone isn’t a perfect movie but it’s one that deserves your time and attention and one that hopefully over time will gain the recognition it deserves.
The War Zone is available on DVD and Netflix Watch Instantly, and is rated R.
Latest posts from The Film Stage