THE WALL (2017)
Director: Doug Liman
Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena, the voice of Laith Nakli
MPAA Rating: (for language throughout and some war violence)
Running Time: 1:21
Release Date: 5/12/17
Review by Mark Dujsik | May 11, 2017
For as loaded as the time and setting of the film are, there isn't much in the way of a political message behind The Wall. It's 2007, and the war in Iraq is officially finished. The contractors and private security firms have arrived to do infrastructure work, namely oil pipelines that spread across the desert. There's still an American military presence in the country, although, if we go by the number of soldiers we actually see in the film and note the kind of work that they're doing, that presence is minimal. At the start of the story, there are two soldiers—a sniper and his spotter. They have been lying prone underneath some brush on a hillside, overlooking the construction site of one of those pipelines, for 20 hours.
They're bored and annoyed. All of this is supposed to be over. They should be deployed somewhere else, where something is actually happening, or home, although the idea of going home is the reason that the spotter is still here. He can't imagine the thought of going back to the day-to-day routine, with eyes looking at him, knowing what he has done but incapable of comprehending it.
He has a secret, too—something that only he knows he did. By the end of the film, only one other person will know that secret, although the spotter cannot comprehend why that man, the only other person on the planet who knows the spotter's darkest secret, is doing what he does. If there's a political message here, it's in that inability to understand the man, who claims to be a civilian but acts like a solider in a war that hasn't ended for him.
Dwain Worrell's screenplay possesses only three main characters—the sniper, the spotter, the stranger. At any given point, only two of them are active, save for a scene that puts all three into play in a prime example of how, when dealing with a minimalistic setup, very little variation is necessary to exponentially raise of the stakes of such a scenario.
One of those characters is never seen, although his presence is a constant from the very beginning of the film until its very end. We hear his voice, to be sure, but we never see him. The only evidence that he's real is a handful of shots from the character's point-of-view—looking down the scope of his own sniper rifle. There's one more piece of evidence, of course: the bullets, which have devastated the skulls of a team of contractors and implant themselves with a sickening pop into the flesh of the American soldiers investigating the massacre.
The soldiers are Sergeant Allen Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the spotter, and Staff Sergeant Shane Matthews (John Cena). After 20 hours of staring at a group of dead bodies around an unfinished pipeline, they have become increasingly certain that whoever killed the workers has left. They're pretty confident that it was a team of enemy combatants who did this bloody work, and there's no activity behind a flimsy stone wall, which is the only place nearby where that many people could hide. The only other option is that it was a lone shooter. They laugh at that thought, because it would mean the sniper is a "pro," the likes of which this place could never produce.
Matthews goes to the site and quickly realizes that their assumed least-case scenario is the correct one. He's shot in the abdomen—the report of the rifle echoing across the desert a few seconds later. Isaac rushes down to help him, and he's hit in the knee. Unable to do anything else, he crawls to cover behind the wall. When he tries to call for help on his long-range radio, he discovers that the antenna was shot.
The placement of the characters remains the same for pretty much the extent of the film—Isaac behind the wall, Matthews either unconscious or dead on the ground in the open, the enemy sniper hiding somewhere within range. Isaac's resources are limited. He has a scope that was damaged some time ago but which he keeps because it belonged to a fallen comrade. Everything else he needs has been damaged, including his canteen, which now has a bullet hole going through it.
It's a simple setup, but it's also one that's engrossing throughout. Much of that is on account of what we don't see or hear. There are no scenes away from this place—no flashbacks and no shots of higher-ups at some military base trying to figure out what has happened. It's a sense of complete isolation and helplessness. Even the sniper's location is a question, which leads Isaac to do some distance calculations and draw a layout of the area in the sand. There's no musical score, either—only the static of Isaac's short-range radio, the clunking of some garbage in the distance, the wind (In a couple of scenes, blowing sand is used as cover, and it's rather ingeniously communicated by Liman without a word of the strategy being spoken).
The whole thing is about survival with seemingly impossible odds and no way of escape. It's physical, yes (a painful injury, blood loss, and dehydration), but there's also a psychological element when the sniper (voice of Laith Nakli) comes through Isaac's radio. There's no obvious logic to the sniper's communication with his enemy, except the dreadful internal logic that he's taunting him—toying with his prey.
This is an immediate and intimate thriller, consistently paced and shot with total control of communicating geography and strategy. That The Wall ultimately follows through on its steady stream of hopelessness, giving the film a kick of geopolitical reality at the end, is an added bonus.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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