Trouble occurs shortly after the film has established the principle characters, who are settling into their new and cozy cottage (they have just moved to this windy coastal world from London). Freddie Cunliffe, the son, returns home after shopping with his mom and sees his father and sister taking a bath together. Suspecting the worst, he investigates the matter and doesn't like what he finds, eventually witnessing a scene that reveals the unbounded dimensions of his father's depravity.
Tim Roth -- known primarily for his roles in Tarantino's ultra-violent and ultra-cool films -- directed this rather difficult story, itself based on a book of the same name by Alexander Stuart. I spoke to him after he screened the movie at the University of Washington, where many of the students had in mind the man who was "in a movie with Tupac" rather than a director of a complex art-house film with almost no action and lots of still and intensely poetic moments. I immediately asked about Winston, whose thick form haunts every moment of this film. "He can be scary, and that worried me. He's a big man. That what I like about him, and actors in England generally, is that they are real people, as opposed to gym bodies. Way too much dentistry and gymnasium sort of activity is associated with American acting. Ray is not any part of that; he got his whole belly out. I made sure he didn't lose weight. I wanted a man out there, not a model."
The War Zone is pretentiously filmed (which to me is a great thing -- I really don't know what is wrong with being pretentious) in ways that recall Andrei Tarkovsky's Sacrifice and Ingmar Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly (both are brooding dramas about families in remote outposts). What makes Roth's debut film remarkable is that he rejected the brand of gritty social realism which has marked much of recent British cinema for a more elegant and ornate style of filmmaking. Nothing in his film feels like it was left to chance; he controls not only the acting but the very environment of his film world.
For example, in the book the story takes place during the summer. To enhance the impact of this sad narrative, Roth turned it into a lugubrious late-autumn, with thick, low clouds, heavy winds and rain, and sharply angled light. He also contains the story within specific interior and exterior spaces: the wood and warmth of the home; the black concrete shelter on the cliff top, where the transgressions take place; and the rocky beach, whose crashing waves belittle the strolling spectators.
Family, with all its various meanings, is at the heart of Roth's concerns. Indeed, he sees it as the most vulnerable point of our social life. During our talk he often refers to his own family, to his deep concerns about the development of his son's sexuality (he doesn't want his son to watch this film, because he feels visions of the father's activities should not be "his first sexual experience"), and gun violence in America. "I'm worried about the whole gun thing here," he says, "so I'm thinking of pulling my whole family out. My kids are school age, so it's time I think about that. It's a real shame because I love it here, but that whole thing is freaky."
These preoccupations about what is and is not healthy or safe for a family informs every aspect of this film, which concludes with the unsettling assertion that some transgressions are unpardonable; that some crimes go beyond the family's inherent capacity to forgive -- and forgive again -- its misguided members.