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Movie Review: 'The War Zone'

Friday, April 21, 2000

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

Fifteen-year-old Tom (Freddie Cunliffe) and his 17-year-old sister Jessie (Lara Belmont) and their parents have just moved from swinging London to the stark, windy coast of Devon. Tom is lonely and withdrawn but at least has the security of a loving, middle-class family: Brother and sister are playfully fond of each other. Hard-working Dad (Ray Winstone, resembling the young Rod Steiger) is a quintessential nice guy with a gentle, generous manner. Pregnant Mom (Tilda Swinton) is salt-of-the-earth sensitive to her older kids' adjustment problems.

'The War Zone'

RATING: R for graphic sex, brutality and incest theme

STARRING: Freddie Cunliffe, Lara Belmont, Ray Winstone, Tilda Swinton


CRITIC'S CALL: 2 1/2 stars


When she goes into labor, all four of them pile into the car and speed toward the hospital. A horrendous car accident occurs on the way. Everyone survives, but it seems a bad omen. By the time his mother comes home from the maternity ward, Tom seems filled with some strangely intense rage. She attributes it to adolescent jealousy over a newborn sibling.

It's not that at all. He's fine with the baby. It's the terrible secret between his father and sister that he has just learned and now consumes him. When Tom finally confronts his masochistic sister about it, Jessie responds with, "You want to hurt me, too? Go ahead" -- guiding his hand to burn her with a candle. The superficially normal family dynamic is in fact a dysfunctional nightmare of incest. Jesse can't or won't act.

Tom decides to do so himself.

First-time director Tim Roth (better known as an actor -- and very good one -- in "Pulp Fiction," Oscar-nominated for "Rob Roy") renders Alexander Stuart's troubling novel with a hypnotic blend of lyrical beauty and uncompromising realism. His production values -- the soundtrack of newborn bawling, the darkly lit interiors of a home filled with dark silences -- could not be better. Cunliffe (with his wonderful case of acne!) and Belmont are excellent personifications of innocence defiled, while Winstone is astonishing in his climactic confrontation scene with them. The only thing worse than the verbal accusations are the unspoken ones in their eyes.

"War Zone's" R rating seems mild considering its graphic sex, brutal subject and one particularly horrific semi-rape scene in an old abandoned World War II pillbox. Audiences should under no circumstances bring a child or young teen.

In the end, I don't quite know how to process this gorgeously photographed, superbly acted, relentlessly grim tragedy. It's like heavy Pinter and Albee and Woolf combined, without the fun bits (such as they are), but tremendously well crafted. There is no escaping such a "War Zone." From high atop their seaside rocks, Tom and Jessie often gaze down suicidally at the crashing breakers below.

Who's Afraid of Virginia's Beach?

I am.

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