The War Zone

UK/Italy | 1999 | Directed by Tim Roth

Logline: A teenage boy, frustrated with his family’s move away from the city, struggles with his relationship with his sister, and hers with their father. 

Tom (Freddie Cunliffe) is a sullen, acne-ravaged 15-year-old with his hormones simmering. His very pretty 18-year-old sister Jessie (Lara Belmont) whom he is close with is, plays aloof and secretive. Their mother (Tilda Swinton) is heavily pregnant and their father (Ray Winstone) is stern and preoccupied, seemingly with work. The family has moved from the bustle of London to the bleak coastline of Devon and into an old farmhouse. Tom feels alienated, having abandoned his friends, and now becoming uncomfortably aware of his sister’s sexuality. Further more he senses something is not quite right in the family dynamic. 

Actor Tim Roth gets behind the camera and directs Alexander Stuart’s adaptation of his own novel, The War Zone, into a searing, emotionally devastating juggernaut that obliterates the concept of the well-adjusted nuclear family. Although there are only three scenes of violence ( a car crash, a beating, and a stabbing), none of which are graphic, The War Zone is one of the most gut-wrenching and wounding dramas ever made, as it deals with the most intimate and taboo of relationships, its inevitable exposure, and its immediate and shocking aftermath. 

The battle lines are only never drawn in this combat zone, for there will never be victors, only victims, and collateral damage. Incest between father and daughter is one of the most powerful beasts of betrayal, and The War Zone exhibits this demon as a cold stark nightmare of moral confusion. As complicated as the situation is for Jessie and Tom, the reality is simple; their father has descended into hell and is taking the family with him. The old WWII bunker on the seaside cliff top is first a crime scene, throughout a metaphor, and finally a sanctuary. 

Operating almost like a play, Stuart’s screenplay has only a handful of settings; the rural family house, the local pub, the bunker, the desolate beach, the hospital, and a London housing estate flat. Most of the movie takes place in the house, and the only notable characters outside of the family are the small roles of Lucy (Kate Ashfield), a local family friend who recognises Tom’s sexual frustration, Nick (Colin Farrell, in one of his first features), another local who Jessie has a sexual escapade with much to Tom’s chagrin and further confusion, and Carol (Aisling O’Sullivan), Jessie’s older city friend who Jessie talks into seducing Tom for purely selfish reasons. 

The movie is beautifully shot by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, capturing the landscape and natural light with all its darkened hues absorbing the psychological darkness of the terrible secret, the rugged terrain reflecting the inner domestic turmoil, the rain beating down like Nature’s disdain. Simon Boswell’s orchestral score juxtaposes the brooding nightmare with its lilting refrains; The War Zone is a ghastly poetry of sorts, capturing elements of natural beauty and smothering them with a jagged shroud of evil. 

One of the most provocative and disturbing elements of The War Zone - apart from the harrowing scenes of Tom spying on his father sodomising Jessie in the bunker, and in the hospital where the mother discovers her baby is bleeding and Tom warns her - is Jessie’s moral confusion and the bonding ambiguity that lingers between her and Tom. There is a grey subtext that suggests Tom might be sexually attracted to his sister, and this awkward attraction is something Jessie doesn’t repel. She allows Tom to see her fully nude, they wrestle and cuddle, Jessie slaps Tom in the face by bringing him down to the beach where she intends to have sex with Nick. Later Jessie brings Tom to her experienced friend Carol in order to get him laid, only to interrupt the pair almost out of jealousy.


In the final scene, after Tom has escaped to the bunker in a blinding moment of psychological masochism, Jessie arrives to console him. “What do we do now?” Tom asks, but Jessie doesn’t answer, so Tom closes the heavy iron bunker door, shutting the camera and audience out, a helicopter shot slowly rising away from the desolate landscape. 

The primary evil has been vanquished, but so much damage has already been done, it is apparent the ingrained trauma will probably never heal, and possibly a form of sustained dysfunction is firmly in place. The War Zone is a shattering drama, superbly directed and acted, especially brave young Lara Belmont in her debut. It won a slew of international awards. No doubt an exhausting experience for director Tim Roth, just as it probably was for Gary Oldman on Nil by Mouth, as neither actor has directed another feature since. Curiously, on the inside cover of my DVD edition are a series of behind the scenes photos showing Roth, Belmont and Cunliffe smiling and enjoying themselves at work as if to remind the viewer this was only a movie, but, just like Nil by Mouth, and aspects of Naked, it is a nightmare is all the more haunting because the horror it depicts is a very real and prevalent hell that happens all over the world, all the time, not just England.