Tim Roth’s directorial debut feature The War Zone (1999) begins with a shot of a foaming white sea throwing itself against black cliffs so jagged one might forget that, geologically speaking, it’s the water that cuts the rock. There’s a similar kind of confusion to the film itself, an unintended murkiness about its sexual politics. The next shot is of a boy riding a bike along a narrow road through a windswept landscape to a double-storey whitewashed cottage standing resolutely in the middle of an empty field.
This is the war zone, and here is its hero: the boy, Tom (Freddie Cunliffe). All nose and elbows and pimples, he mopes his sullen way through the whole hundred minutes. Mum (Tilda Swinton) is expecting – in fact her waters break as she’s trying to light the gas heater – while burly Dad (Ray Winstone) conducts his antique business in a cockney accent on the dog and bone. Throughout the film, he refers to his wife as Mummy and exudes domestic contentment – smugness, even – with a touch of ‘tough but fair’ paternalism. The entire family rushes off together in the car to the hospital. On the way, Dad loses his temper and control of the car, which flips over, and the baby Alice is born there and then, in the carnage.
The film operates as a series of shocks – the shock of the car accident is only the first; there’s the shock of Tom seeing Dad and Jessie (Lara Belmont) in the bath together, the shock of Tom discovering Jessie’s nude photos of herself, the shock of Tom witnessing Dad and Jessie having sex in a bunker on an appropriately desolate hilltop overlooking the sea, the shock of Tom being awkwardly seduced by Jessie’s friend because big sister thinks he needs a shag, and so on. And, every time, Tom is there, driving the narrative forward. In fact, there’s hardly a moment when Tom is not there.
His eyes and face are impassive, except for the one crucial moment when, shopping-bags in hand, he spies Dad and his older sister Jessie together in the bath through the bathroom window. He blinks hard and looks away, and after a moment looks back through the window and into the bathroom. In a film that is self-consciously fleshy, it’s a strange decision not to show the audience exactly what Tom spies in the bathroom. These people are unafraid to be naked around one another. Early in the film, post-natal Mum lies in bed with Dad. Her belly is unctuous and swollen. Jessie, too, is unabashed about being naked in front of her younger brother when he confronts her with the evidence. But then again she’s sexually precocious: she sleeps around, she might even be bisexual, we don’t know – Alexander Stuart skims over many crucial details for the sake of brevity in converting his novel to the screen. For much of the film, Tom blames the victim. ‘I hate you,’ he tells her, and we have to settle for that because her story is never really told. Jessie, too, is sullen, but in a knowing way, and spit-in-your-face defiant. When Tom confronts her after having seen her raped by her father, she has him hold a cigarette lighter to her breast for what seems to be an hour. She knows how to handle pain. Tom, on the other hand, doesn’t. He’s the one who needs comforting: he appropriates the role of victim at Jessie’s expense.
Other than that, we don’t get much of an insight into Jessie. The story isn’t really about her. Whenever she’s around, Tom’s there, too. Compare this to the Cassavetes film, A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and you realise how male this film is. This is a film about an incest victim’s adolescent brother. She’s practically mute even though, frankly, her story (or even Dad’s story, in a Nabokovian sense) would make for a much more interesting film.
To criticise a film like The War Zone feels in some way like an act of disrespect. It is certainly a well-made film, and Tim Roth deserves all the accolades he has received for his direction. He owes his cinematographer a huge favour – the film looks great – but in the end the story is itself disrespectful towards its own subject matter. It meets suffering in the eye and flinches. It loses courage and focuses instead on the next best thing to mediate the representation of incest – and muddies the water in the process. This is perhaps understandable given the taboo nature of incest, but you walk away from the cinema with the impression that a point has been missed. Most frustratingly, there are few precious moments when father and daughter are allowed to interact alone: there is one brief conversation around a kitchen table when Tom seems to be dozing on the couch. It’s just after the birth of the baby and Jessie asks Dad if having children has kept his marriage from dissolving. It’s a good question, and Dad replies, ‘You want a straight answer?’ She nods. The audience nods with her, sensing the chance to lift a stone and inspect the insect life teeming underneath it. Then Tom pipes up with some mumbled quip (the sound quality is occasionally dull) – it turns out he hasn’t been asleep after all. So, instead of a straight answer, Dad recounts a childhood memory of superhuman strength at the scene of a car crash – or perhaps it’s as straight as he gets. The phone is ringing as Dad concludes the story – by film’s end the anecdote will come back to haunt him – and while on the one hand the rings are a real and intimate detail, in hindsight perhaps it’s just another evasion.
Strategies of subterfuge are a central narrative means of mediating representations of the unspeakable or unthinkable, particularly its sexual manifestations. In the rape in the bunker scene, Tom’s video camcorder is the mediation device, and its implications are unsettling for both Tom and the viewer. There are a couple of implausibilities about the narrative means by which the scene is established. Plausibility is suppressed and the narrative enters the stage of the mythic.
The bunker itself – a concrete box – no doubt dates from WWII, but there is something medieval or dungeon-like about it, too, with its narrow horizontal slits through which to scan the horizon for enemies. We are in fact witnessing a torture scene, an act of trauma. An assault from within, seen from the exterior – the conventional dynamic of the bunker is reversed. The scene is set like a stage or movie set. The camera is wedged in one of these holes in the wall, and Tom is looking, too – in fact, he can only be described as peeping, and we too are peeping with him. I am at the peepshow, I am a peeping Tom and – if it were not being simulated – what I am witnessing would not even warrant an X-rating: the anal rape of a young woman by her father. The girl whimpers throughout, the father says little other than shooshing her gently and grunting.
Afterwards, Tom throws the video camera into the sea, a gesture reminiscent of Oedipus tearing out his eyes. It’s as if there is an implication of complicity in the act of seeing, in the act of recording for the purposes of memory and playback. Perhaps, at that moment of peeping, Tom – the peeping Tom, my substitute – is little different to his father, who annihilates his daughter’s subjective existence in the act of total objectification that constitutes rape, an act the narrative itself mimics.
Somehow I wasn’t surprised to read in a newspaper Tim Roth explaining that he himself is an incest survivor – there is an earnestness about this film that almost implores you to be moved by it. But in its evasive tactics and its silencing of the feminine the film, like Tom, loses its innocence. As for Jessie, she doesn’t seem to matter. At film’s end, Tom finally acts to bring the suffering to an end. On the one hand, it’s an act of love and of justice, the same kind of act of superhuman strength described by his father earlier in the kitchen. It’s also, once again, an Oedipal act, with associated implications of complicity and guilt. Then he goes to the bunker and steps inside it, and in a way he’s stepping back onto the stage, having replaced his father. He senses someone outside and calls out, ‘Mum?’ Instead, it is Jessie; she steps inside. The closing door is the final image of the film.