Sunday, April 29, 2012

Director Spotlight #6.25: Brian De Palma's Redacted

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. April’s director is the self-proclaimed master of the macabre, Brian De Palma.

Grade: 48 (C+)

Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker isn’t the only Iraq War film, but it’s almost undoubtedly the best of the bunch. The others range from Paul Haggis’ barely remembered In the Valley of Elah to the famously melodramatic Home of the Brave. It’s strange that Brian De Palma, perhaps the most idiosyncratic of the directors to tackle the war, didn’t end up with a more well-liked effort. To his credit, Redacted is one of his most emotionally charged films, and a daring piece of filmmaking. It’s unfortunate that this doesn’t translate to “good”.

Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz) is a soldier in Iraq with an obsession to tape everything he sees. His fellow soldiers include the intellectual Gabe Blix (Kel O’Neill), the moral Lawyer McCoy (Rob Devaney), the loyal idiot B.B. Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman), and the violent, racist Reno Flake (Patrick Carroll). When their commanding officer is killed by a roadside bomb, the soldiers are all angry, but Flake and Rush take things too far when they decide to raid an Iraqi home and kidnap a man. When the two later decide to rape a 15-year-old girl, McCoy and Blix want nothing to do with it, but they’re not strong-willed enough to stand up for what’s right.

Redacted has a lot going for it. In true De Palma fashion, it never flinches away from the horrifying violence on display. The killings in the film are frightening in their matter-of-fact starkness. When the commanding officer is killed by a bomb, his limbs fly into the air. The raids on the Iraqi home have a sense of realism De Palma is usually uninterested in- it’s hard not to feel a little uneasy after the girl’s death. De Palma also does a good job of clarifying the relationship sex has with violence- the two psychopathic soldiers have little regard for women, and Rush follows and feels up the girl long before the film’s climactic event. This, combined with a sense that the soldiers don’t empathize with or care to understand the Iraqis, shows how the line between civilian and insurgent could be ignored by a soldier, to tragic ends.

De Palma’s grasp on how the new media affects responses to violence is quite strong as well. In the internet age, there are plenty of videos responding to the war, from a soldier’s wife, to a terrorist beheading one of the major characters, to an ignorant, self-righteous Youtube commenter talking about the soldiers’ crimes. Redacted is a film filled with anger that brings De Palma’s voyeuristic sensibility to a more stripped-down style than he had ever used before.

It’s too bad that the film is so painfully heavy-handed. The film is a virtual remake of De Palma’s Casualties of War, which had a similar plot of soldiers kidnapping, raping, and murdering a young girl while the righteous characters were too helplessly weak to do anything about it. The difference between Casualties of War and Redacted is A. the former came years after the war had ended, allowing the director to have more clarity of judgment in his filmmaking, and B. the former had Sean Penn as the villain and was willing to humanize him. Redacted has a sense of prescience, but it’s largely overpowered by De Palma’s ponderous script, full of lines like “my fuckstick needs some pussy” and “killing Johnny Jihad…scorched fucking earth”, and the actors cast as the two villains are absolutely terrible. Penn used machismo in his performance, but there was a more human element to the character that showed Penn playing a character rather than judging him. These characters, as written and as played, are transparent racists and psychopaths, and there’s no authority to their bravado- it’s all bluff.

 De Palma treats the characters as monsters, and they never feel real because of it. He doesn’t handle the theme of guilt any better- the film ends with a shrill scene where McCoy speechifies during his homecoming, only to end on a leaden ironic note for a “celebration for a war hero”. As a post-script, De Palma includes “redacted” war photographs that the U.S. media wouldn’t share- dead babies, innocent people bloodied, charred, and burned. It’s an effective montage, but it’s telling when the collateral damage section leaves a more lasting impression than the actual story.

But let’s end this on a positive note: I haven’t been a lifelong De Palma fan, but revisiting his work has been an immensely rewarding experience. At the end of the day, De Palma is a film buff. He’s just one that happens to work behind the camera, and it’s telling that the movie buff directors to come after him- Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Noah Baumbach- have taken a page from him. Sure, his last couple of films have been disappointments. But De Palma’s passion remains, and his next two films- a psychological thriller (Passion) starring Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace, and a remake of the 1986 Burt Reynolds vehicle Heat written by William Goldman and starring Jason Statham- sound more than promising.

De Palma: All Films Considered

1.     Blow Out (A)
2.     Carlito’s Way (A)
3.     Carrie (A)
4.     Dressed to Kill (A)
5.     Sisters (A)
6.     Mission to Mars (A)
7.     Scarface (A)
8.     Phantom of the Paradise (A)
9.     Femme Fatale (A-)
10. Casualties of War (A-)
11. Hi, Mom! (A-)
12. Body Double (B+)
13. Greetings (B+)
14. The Fury (B+)
15. Mission: Impossible (B)
16. Raising Cain (B)
17. Obsession (B)
18. The Untouchables (B)
19. Snake Eyes (B-)
20. Redacted (C+)
21. Murder a la Mod (C+)
22. Get to Know Your Rabbit (C+)
23. Wise Guys (C)
24. Home Movies (C-)
25. The Black Dahlia (D+)
26. The Bonfire of the Vanities (D-)
Unseen: Dionysus in ’69, The Wedding Party

Best Actor: John Travolta (Blow Out)
Honorable Mention: Al Pacino (Carlito’s Way)

Best Actress: Sissy Spacek (Carrie)
Honorable Mention: Nancy Allen (Blow Out)

Best Supporting Actor: Sean Penn (Carlito’s Way)
Honorable Mention: John Lithgow (Blow Out)

Best Supporting Actress: Piper Laurie (Carrie)
Honorable Mention: Penelope Ann Miller (Carlito’s Way)

Best Set-Piece: The Parade Finale (Blow Out)
Honorable Mention: Grand Central Station Chase (Carlito’s Way)

Next month’s Director Spotlight: Ridley Scott

Line-up:

1.     The Duellists
2.     Alien
3.     Blade Runner
4.     Legend
5.     Someone to Watch Over Me/Black Rain
6.     Thelma and Louise
7.     White Squall
8.     G.I. Jane
9.     Gladiator
10. Hannibal
11. Black Hawk Down
12. Matchstick Men
13. Kingdom of Heaven
14. A Good Year
15. American Gangster/Body of Lies/Robin Hood

Unlikely: 1492: Conquest of Paradise (it’s not available on DVD)

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