’71 Is A Timely And Timeless Tension Machine

downloadMessage movies often get a bad rap as being stuffy and overwrought morality plays that blatantly play for awards and easy catharsis. None of that can be said of ‘71, and indeed the 14-year-old me could’ve just watched this film and seen nothing but a white-knuckle combat thriller. This is the true power of Yann Demange’s directorial debut, that it can smuggle some blunt-force commentary into an incredibly intense and grounded “action” film. Combined with a quietly powerful performance from Jack O’Connell and a great supporting cast, ‘71 is a great sort of adult drama, the kind that many Hollywood prestige pictures can only dream of being.

Harsh, unforgiving violence abounds in the film, but anything less would be a betrayal of the story being told. Demange provides an eclectic mix of action, from a pulse-pounding foot chase to a sudden bomb explosion to slow-boil conflict on the large (a steadily-growing riot) and small (a cat-and-mouse hunt amongst an IRA-controlled flat). Demange is also very conscious of the consequence of the constant violence. We linger on dead and dying bodies repeatedly, the pain and sorrow of each life lost on either side made clear in no uncertain terms. Many characters refer to the situation as a war, but it’s barely that; it’s just violence, that can come to any person at any place at any time. Ultimately feels like damage done towards no real end, just for the sake of causing damage

The toll of this unending parade of carnage is personified most directly and vividly by Jack O’Connell, in a very internalized performance based almost entirely on exhaustion and fear. O’Connell’s Gary Hook has little to say, and is mostly the MacGuffin on which the rest of the plot hinges. And yet we wholly identify with Hook and hope he can survive, and this is thanks to O’Connell’s performance. Hook is not a super-soldier, not particularly gung-ho or patriotic that we can see, nor is he a noticeably respected or liked member of his unit compared to the others. He is just an average soldier, in every conceivable way; during drills early in the film, we see him struggling and lagging, not failing but not distinguishing himself either. This makes the extraordinary circumstances in which he is eventually caught all the more visceral and intense, knowing that he isn’t some action hero that can effortlessly save the day. He’s just one guy who happens to be a soldier, who happens to be caught in the midst of a huge moral quagmire.

There is a strong commitment to the ambiguity of that moral quagmire throughout the film, as pretty much everyone but Hook is compromised or dangerous in some clear ways. We see the IRA at each other’s throats as much as the British soldiers’ or Protestant Loyalists’ as they fight each other over the best way to fight their enemy. And we see one of those IRA men also collaborating with British undercover agents to dispose of each other’s problems, both sides compromising their overall duties for the sake of their immediate missions. As for those British undercover agents, they aren’t too keen to see Hook make it through the night either, after he witnesses their unwitting involvement in an explosion at a Loyalist stronghold. From top to bottom, pretty much everyone and everything is fucked. Agents on both sides of the line are more concerned with immediate results and satisfaction than with a greater resolution, which means nothing good for the regular people (particularly Hook, in this case).

The key is that Demange is never preachy or judgmental, he just presents all sides as fair and equal participants in the awful and ridiculous circle of sectarian violence. While many official agents of both sides are represented as either morally-gray or driven by rage and spite, there are some people who are dictated by some basic conscience. And neither side is ever meant to look flat-out wrong. While more detail is given to the Loyalist civilians than the Nationalist ones, at no point does Demange or writer Gregory Burke try to make the IRA look completely unjustified in their cause (if not their actions); the undercover British alone prove that England might not be so morally righteous in this case. Throughout, Demange depicts, and chronicles, but does not judge either side, just the whole awful system, one that both the Irish and British were equal participants in.

The match of uncompromising violence and unvarnished truth makes for a brutal and impactful combination, and one that should be used more, particularly in war films. Yann Demange puts that combination to heartbreaking and intense work in ‘71 and proves himself to be a terrific talent to watch. And Jack O’Connell provides another fantastic performance, which combined with last year’s Starred Up should put him on every filmmaker’s casting wishlist. These two exciting new talents, combined with this runaway train narrative and challenging thematic text, make ‘71 an early high-water mark for adult dramas in 2015, and a piece of cinema worth watching for years to come.

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