Brian De Palma's Redacted
There's no doubt about it - Brian De Palma's new film, Redacted, is a deeply disturbing watch. Disturbing not so much because of its content, which is shocking in a yes-that's-terrible-but-don't-we-already-know-that kind of way, but because it's incredible to see one of Hollywood's better directors making a movie so terribly bad it could be the work of a too-clever talentless first timer. You know how when you're really angry, you should take a deep breath and count to twenty before you react? De Palma should have counted to about 5,000 before he made this film, because he's ended up making a botched mess of what could have been a really powerful movie.
Redacted is a fictionalized retelling of a real life crime - the rape and murder of a 15 year old girl by US troops in Iraq. The central conceit of the film is that it's made up of 'footage' pieced together from a variety of sources - chief among them being the video journal of a buddy of the rapists, a soldier named Angel Salazar who is trying to shoot an account of his time in Iraq as a way of getting into film school. These videos, we are to assume, have been redacted - censored by authorities looking to avoid another scandal.
It's an interesting enough idea, and one that, done properly, could have made for great cinema. Unfortunately, De Palma does it extremely badly. Since most of the action is supposed to be shot by a soldier with his handheld we're expecting a lot of jerky camera movement, poor cinematography, and shots of real people (or actors doing a really good job of coming across as real people) having real, everyday conversations, right? Wrong. De Palma gives us the exact opposite. His camera work is a little jerky, true, but no more than, say, the average episode of NYPD Blue, and if Angel Salazar can really shoot like that with a tiny little video recorder (not to mention a camera clipped onto his helmet) he doesn't just deserve to be in film school, he deserves an Academy Award. Instead, where the amateurishness comes in is with the actors (many of them first-timers) who deliver performances that come in somewhere between exploitation flick and high school drama company. And if it isn't them hamming away at their lines, it's the lines themselves - didactic, stereotypical exchanges that have all the realism of a Commando comic. De Palma's idea seems to be (he also wrote the script) that as long as you use fuck in place of punctuation marks, you'll manage to convey gritty, anguished realism anyway, so why bother actually making your characters sound human? It doesn't help any that the characters are caricatures - stock figures familiar to viewers of B-grade movies about the Vietnam war. If it weren't for the seriousness of De Palma's message I'd say he was making a spoof of the genre, but evidently he means us to take this stuff seriously.
The problem, I think, is that De Palma seems driven by a compulsion to spell everything out. There's isn't an ounce of subtlety in this film - every single thing that happens needs to be shown on screen, every single message has to be placed in someone's mouth. This would be bad enough if De Palma were making a more traditional war flick, but with his 'found footage' approach the meticulousness of his documentation defies all credulity. Is it really likely that every single interaction leading up to the rape was captured by some camera or the other, shot from the perfect angle and with crystal clear sound to go with it? And conversely, do we really need to be shown every little side conversation between the soldiers in order to understand what went down here? Does De Palma really credit us with no imagination at all? Even in a more orthodox format, this film would have seemed over-theatrical. Purporting to be a quasi-documentary put together after the fact it looks obviously phony, a needlessly gimicky piece of film making that ends up trivializing the very horrors it is meant to document.
Not that the film is all bad though. Where Redacted works, I think, is in some of the early scenes, where a) the action is supposed to have been shot by news cameras, and actually looks like it has and b) the action is more general - not focussed on a particular character or a particular crime, but documenting the reality of the situation in Iraq. There is a scene early on, for instance, where we are shown a car speeding through a checkpoint set up by the US forces. The soldiers open fire on the vehicle, following procedures, and end up killing a woman in labor (and her unborn child) who was being rushed to hospital by her brother. There is more genuine impact in those five minutes than in the rest of De Palma's film. If everything else in Redacted had come close to that sequence, this would have been a great movie.
As it is, it's a forgettable film - the latest in a long series of failed endeavors to make 'the war film' about Iraq. If you want to watch a gritty, angry film that documents the harrowing violence of war in general and atrocities committed by soldiers more specifically, go watch Flandres, Bruno Dumont's award winning 2006 film that is both infinitely more gruesome than De Palma's film, but also infinitely more realistic.