It's nice to know that, at age 67, Brian De Palma has finally discovered something that really pisses him off. The director of Carrie, The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible has fashioned an entire career out of having a cool, ironic point-of-view and, more often than not, notably calorie-free material: For proof, look no further than the trashy decadence of 2002's Femme Fatale, in which Rebecca Romijn dons a catsuit and seduces the designer jewels right off another supermodel's ample cleavage. So what happens when this maestro of fetishistic violence, America's number-one Hitchcock necrophiliac, attempts a ripped-from-the-headlines tale of horrific military misconduct during the U.S. occupation of Iraq?
He comes up with his most vital work in years — which, to be honest, isn't saying much, but it's cause for some celebration. While most of this fall's anti-war movies have either been fence-sitting, hand-wringing non-starters (In the Valley of Elah) or ponderous, preachy screeds (Lions for Lambs), Redacted is a brisk, bracing, you-are-there account of what happens when bored, psychotic grunts are left to their own paranoid devices in a land where ";the enemy" is all around them, in the most unlikely places. Revisiting the same themes as his own Casualties of War, De Palma has seized upon a 2006 incident involving the rape of an Iraqi girl by U.S. troops, and made it the stuff of grisly, faux-documentary psychodrama. It's Casualties meets The Blair Witch Project.
It's both a blessing and a curse that De Palma, working for the first time in digital video, has decided to shoot this particular story in such a cutting-edge fashion. Redacted opens as one ";documentary" — the video diary of film-student-turned-recruit Angel (Izzy Diaz) — before morphing into another, separate account recorded by a French-speaking news crew. The dissonance between the footage is fascinating, and it provides the film with some of its most resonant moments: We get the aimless slow-burn of the soldiers, wasting time and pontificating in their barracks, followed by footage of the same men manning a tense checkpoint. It's impressive that De Palma, always the master stylist, has managed to subsume himself so completely in these two shooting styles, even if the director is far too much of a control freak to leave anything to chance. His endless long takes and athletic zooms are the kind of things no camera crew, not even a French one, could pull off.
But those aren't the only points of view we get. By the time the film has ended, we've seen YouTube-style clips, Army surveillance cams, war wives' video blogs, and anonymous, text-based comment posts and flame wars. Redacted is obviously the work of someone who's thrilled by the convergence of technology and war coverage, someone seeking a visual parallel to the days when Vietnam was transmitted straight into America's living rooms, thereby affecting change. Unfortunately, the film is also the work of someone who seems to be encountering these newfangled communications channels for the first time.
As a result, the war wives' blogs feel fake, the action taking place in front of the surveillance cams seems staged, and more than a few of the plot twists that unfold in front of the ";documentarians" seem just too convenient to be believed. When Angel's camera is hijacked by terrorists, it makes you wonder exactly who might've rescued all of this footage — both shocking and mundane — from it.
And De Palma's script is as schematic as they come, although some of the actors are able to breathe considerable life into it. The sensitive grunt is the one who reads Appointment in Samara, the thugs blast heavy metal and the straight-laced superior is the Michael J. Fox stand-in — that is, the one who'll inevitably go back home with the weight of What We Did Over There on his shoulders. The men have a palpable chemistry, however, and if the performances feel stagy, it's in a good way: Many of the performers are vets of various Broadway and off-Broadway productions.
Even if the horrific events in Redacted have a certain inevitability to them — if there's one recurring theme in De Palma's work, it's that man's capacity for evil is depressingly predictable — by the time those horrors arrive, the director and his actors have succeeded in grabbing their audience by the collar and daring them to look away. That's more than you can say for most of the would-be incendiary Iraq war films released thus far.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].