Worth a Thousand Words
By Michael Koresky
Dir. Brian De Palma, U.S., Magnolia Pictures
Our era’s omnipresent symbol of how far the U.S. has fallen, and how precarious the Western world’s dominance is when up against the ideological conundrum of the Middle East, the Iraq war has proven a challenge for our political artists. How to depict something with clarity when (self-righteousness along partisan lines be damned) there is no clear solution, no exit strategy, no hopeful end? As filmmakers feel an ever growing responsibility to put up on the screen their own interpretations on the state of things, the artistic stakes grow ever higher. While Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah was a self-consciously interiorized, safely melancholy, and dull-edged take that played like its director’s unspoken penance after the shrieking histrionics of Crash, Brian De Palma takes the opposite approach with Redacted, moving painfully far from his comfort zone and ending up with a rigid, vital, infuriating, and hugely imperfect film, a guttural yawp that exemplifies what’s right and wrong with this controversial director’s aesthetic and moral approach to filmmaking.
Redacted has been both overpraised and too easily dismissed—an unsurprising reaction to a film that feels alternately as rushed and angry as this week’s hot Youtube clip and as devilishly calculated as the work of a seasoned master. Unmistakably De Palma, the film initially locates its director in the more freeform mode of his early career, when he appropriated Godardian antics within American social satires, such as Greetings and Hi, Mom!, both of which targeted Vietnam-era ethical dissolution and radical disillusion. With Redacted, though, gone is the forthright humor, as evidenced in its sober opening, in which onscreen text, explaining the film’s content and purpose, is silently erased with digital chalk, as though removed by an invisible authority. Thus, De Palma has set out his case with clean, efficient lines—this will be a film consisting of those horrible “truths” that the American media does not want and will not allow us to view—only to see them washed away in a mess of scribbles. The remainder of the film will then search for the proper means of representing and reframing these stolen images.
Even though soldier Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz) states at the outset of his “war diary”—a constant filming of his fellow troops stationed in Iraq that makes up much of Redacted’s running time—that he’s “telling it how it is” and that there will “no logical narrative,” De Palma’s film ultimately, despite its attempted plurality of voices and addresses, comes across as far too enslaved to narrative. In addition to Salazar’s often direct-address handheld footage (which he absurdly claims over and over will be his ticket into film school—why the mild attack on predatory wannabe filmmakers?), Redacted’s central scandal, the rape and murder of a fifteen-year-old Iraqi girl (Zahara Al Zubaidi) by a handful of members of one American squad stationed in Samarra, encompasses a wide range of distinct visual and narrative addresses, all of them meant to indicate unrehearsed found footage: surveillance cameras, internet streaming videos, chat rooms, television news reports, and, most successfully, a restrained if somewhat pompously aestheticized French documentary.
Whereas Salazar’s war diary is made up of the most disconcerting, intentionally amateurish techniques of De Palma’s career, replete with churlish video transition effects (wipes, swirls, phony shattering glass), the film’s other early major section, “Barrage: A Film by Marc et François Clément,” which patiently surveys the daily activities of the troops as they hold sway at a checkpoint, with penetrating close-ups on the men’s stoic, sweat-glistened faces, makes for a flattering counterpoint. Managing to be at once a parody of a particularly self-serving brand of nonfiction filmmaking and a reaffirmation of De Palma’s exquisite formal control, “Barrage” repeatedly employs slow zooms and the foreboding grandiosity of George Friderich Handel's funereal march “Sarabande”—used most memorably in Barry Lyndon, an unavoidable aural reference and emblem of the type of awed art-film both De Palma and his invented French filmmakers mean to evoke. In their own minor way, Marc and François Clément are to De Palma what the invented traveler Sandor Krasna was to Chris Marker in Sans Soleil; not only does De Palma at one point incorporate time-lapse photography, but both also utilize dulcet-toned female narrators, creating a further removal between voice and director. Marker is a surprising and elegant reference for De Palma (even when one recalls that Vertigo, by De Palma’s prime inspiration, Alfred Hitchcock, was a major part of Sans Soleil’s tapestry), which makes it all the more disappointing when he drops this thread. Indeed as the film plunges on, De Palma moves away from such worthwhile digressions and onto a conventional, linear route.
Though Redacted foregrounds its own technique, situating itself as a constant reckoning of reality and fiction within both narrative and purely informational boundaries, it also, at times unsuccessfully, purports to authentically recreate the visceral experiences of its various points of view. This is “telling it how it is,” and though upstanding soldier Gabe Blix (Kel O’Neill) disputes Salazar’s claim that “the camera never lies,” there’s no doubt that De Palma’s intention is to show with clear-eyed verité the horrors of war most viewers aren’t privy to. Yet rather than spontaneous, the film often feels overly rehearsed, as though the various forms of media that serve as narration were awkwardly shoehorned in to fit a traditional script. For a film that assumes the guise of reconstructed found footage, there’s a conspicuous lack of gaps; Redacted is so insistent on hitting every plot point that it has no choice but to betray its own rigorous visual strategy.
Thus every perfectly calibrated, stomach-churning wallop (the unprovoked killing of a pregnant woman at the checkpoint; a sergeant’s death when he falls on a mine) is accompanied by a logical question: was the pregnant woman’s killing actually captured on film by the French documentarians and therefore included in the final edit of their film? And if it was shown, what were the repercussions? Why does Salazar’s camera just happen to be everywhere that any gory death or horrific incident occurs? (A nearly risible moment occurs later when his running camera captures his own kidnapping, staged and framed like an unintentional blackout comedy sketch.) Most problematic are a series of midfilm scenes shot by what appears to be a fixed, high-angled surveillance camera overlooking a weapons loading area—not only are we unaware of where we are and who’s watching this area, but the angle, implying “caught on video” candidness, betrays the highly theatrical staging within the scene. Here, porcine villain Specialist Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman) constantly threatens and belittles both Blix and the film’s ostensible protagonist, McCoy (Rob Devaney), in the leading up to and aftermath of the film’s central horrific rape, strutting and spittling like a stock Good Ol’ Boy. It’s highly performative and blocked, too dramatically mounted to pass as veritable surveillance footage—a major disparity between camera and action that reveals the essential holes in the film’s visual framework.
Yet even as De Palma formally hedges himself in, his multimedia approach has also opened him up to some of his most urgent filmmaking in years. The plurality of addresses (the Cannes Film Festival heist sequence opening Femme Fatale, with its mix of French and English subtitles and multiple perspectives, was a glorious warm-up) gets at some essential De Palma conceits and connects them to a less hermetic, cine-centralized worldview. It doesn’t come as a surprise that De Palma’s approach in “tackling” Iraq would concern the defiling and murder of a young woman, as his Vietnam film Casualties of War got at the dehumanizing horrors of war by similarly focusing on the systematic, brutal rape and killing of a Vietnamese girl. Unlike in Casualties, when De Palma kept his camera at an unsettling distance, refusing to enter the hut where the rape took place, Redacted takes us inside the raided home for a sickening display of vivid handheld fury, the deed itself shadowy and half-shown through Salazar’s panicked, finally retreated night-visioned camera. As Casualties’ moral compass, Michael J. Fox was sharply defined (even at one point attacking the offending fellow soldiers with a shovel); here McCoy, never a fully wrought character, does nothing to stop the horrific act, and later his hands are tied by the military’s bureaucracy and willful denial.
In its terrible, helpless gaze, Redacted provides a different angle to a similar scenario laid out earlier this year in Bruno Dumont’s unfairly forgotten Flandres. With an omniscient naturalism completely antithetical to Redacted’s vice grip of subjectivity, Flandres surveyed its troop of Belgian men, sent to fight on unnamed Middle Eastern terrain, as they matter-of-factly rape a local village woman. But there is revenge: Flandres’s castration becomes Redacted’s climactic beheading, both graphic, misplaced retributions that signify the sheer fruitlessness of war. In Flandres, this is nearly cosmic, a vengeance that situates the film within a strictly psychological landscape; yet with Redacted, it is the horror of an endless cycle, and certainly evidence against those who accuse De Palma of one-sided anti-Americanism. The point seems to be that we’re not doing any good there, despite the hopeful, confused postulations of McCoy, who asserts during a poker game their alleged mission to help stabilize a burgeoning democratic government.
Unlike In the Valley of Elah, which blames its inciting event on the post-traumatic stress of the war, Redacted baldly posits its two hateful villains, the truly deranged, sleepy-eyed grunt Reno Flake (Patrick Carroll) and the vile follower Rush, as a couple of bad apples, plucked, as one states, “way from the bottom of the gumbo barrel.” By blaming their evil deeds on their upbringing and social conditioning from back home (Rush sleeps under a Confederate flag; Flake relates a long, violent tale about his troubled brother) rather than on “life-altering” experiences abroad, De Palma paints the American military less as a dehumanizing entity than a repository for school and prison rejects, for whom killing is, as Flake puts it, “like guttin’ catfish.” While this allows De Palma to paint in broad, black-and-white strokes, it’s also something of a rebuke to War Is Hell—an acknowledgement of cretinous human nature as well as a critique of foreign policy, in which the two create an unholy alliance, and criminals are allowed to plunder and pillage foreign lands as though their own personal Pleasure Island.
It’s a direct, at times cartoonish approach, and Redacted’s glibness is both cleansing and frustrating: De Palma’s characters, or what there are of them, are wholly unnuanced and they’re often given to fits of inarticulate bluster, yet their actions speak louder than their words. Redacted may seem abrupt, abbreviated, and cold, but it also feels alive, a genuine wrestling with how images are disseminated during wartime from a filmmaker who understands the facts of visual mediation and manipulation as well as anyone in the business. When an angry punk girl (Abigail Savage) viciously rants on a Youtube broadcast near the end of the film, comparing the atrocities depicted in the film to the massacre at My Lai and denouncing the political safety of Hollywood movies about 9/11, she could be speaking for the director himself—out of control and juvenile, she’s the perfect representation of the film’s ultimate address, and a more convincing dramatic device than the grotesquely overplayed welcome-home party for McCoy that provides the film’s final scene.
Yet De Palma has one final statement to make, and it’s already proven to be the most controversial sequence in the film: a series of images, titled “Collateral Damage,” of Iraqis killed since the U.S. invasion entitled, most of them women and children, shown in close-up, their faces and bodies mangled and blown away. Even with the recently added censorship, in which the faces are blacked out because of lawsuit liability, the photos are extraordinarily powerful. De Palma’s always been good at confrontational cinema (the “Be Black Baby” sequence from Hi, Mom!; the shower scene that opens Carrie), and it’s here that he makes his strongest case for Redacted. Yet just as the photographs seem to be proving De Palma’s point better than any fictional representation ever could, he pulls out his trump card, ending the montage on a terrifying, fabricated photo of the teenager killed in the film, her mouth gaping, eye turned to camera, lying in a puddle of blood. The line between fact and representation further blurred, Redacted reminds us of its own construction, and by association the constructedness of all the images we’re fed on a daily basis; Redacted has been less about the Iraq war itself than the manner in which we’ve been allowed images of it. While De Palma’s realist narrative comes across as artificial, here the fake bleeds into the factual, and, despite De Palma’s own inability to find the proper points of view for his outpouring of multimedia, the final effect is close to devastating.