Brian De Palma is one of the most wildly inconsistent film directors still working today. It’s amazing how someone who’s made such classics as Scarface, Carrie, and The Untouchables has also made such large scale disasters as Bonfire of the Vanities, Mission to Mars, and Snake Eyes. The director’s inconsistence insures that one never knows what to expect from a De Palma film. De Palma’s last effort, 2006’s The Black Dahlia most definitely fell in the latter category. After this critical and financial bomb, very few eyes were on De Palma’s next project until Bill O’Reilly found out about its subject matter, at which point it became the most controversial film since The Passion of the Christ.
Redacted is a loosely fictionalized re-telling of a real incident that occurred in during the current Iraq war. The film follows a platoon stationed in Baghdad, particularly one soldier named Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz) who is trying to make a video diary of his experiences in order to help him get into film school. Two members of the platoon, B.B. Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman) and Reno Flake (Patrick Carroll), are loose cannons who have recently been involved in a controversial shooting at a checkpoint. These two soldiers frequently use racial epithets to refer to Iraqi citizens and generally seem to have a sadistic streak. A popular officer, Master Sergeant Sweet (Ty Jones), is killed by a hidden bomb. After this incident Rush and Flake are filled with rage and devise a plan to rape and kill a fifteen year old Iraqi girl and kill her family.
It is not hard to see why this concept has caused a lot of controversy, almost entirely from people who haven’t actually seen the film. Bill O’Reilly in particular has come out against the film and called on his viewers to protest the movie with “support our troops” signs. Had he actually seen the film, or given a damn about its real content in the first place, he would have found the movie is hardly the anti-troop polemic he describes. Flake and Rush, are defiantly not the heroes O’Reilly would like to pretend each and every American soldier is, but they are also not figments of De Palma’s imaginations. The film is based on the Al-Mahmudiyah killings that occurred in March of 2006. The guilt of the American soldiers in this real life killing is not a matter of contention, all three have been found guilty and been sentenced to prison for over 90 years each. If this film is a lie, then why have the real killers, Spc. James Barker, Sgt. Paul E. Cortez, and Pfc. Jesse V. Spielman, all been court marshaled? The answer is that the story of Redacted is an inconvenient truth if ever there was one; that perhaps not every soldier in Iraq isn’t an angel after all.
This is not to say that the film believes every soldier in Iraq is a rapist or killer, far from it in fact. Of the five members of the platoon in the film, only two are involved in the killing, two other members are vehemently opposed to their plan, while the other merely tags along out of morbid curiosity. The characters of Lawyer McCoy (Rob Devaney) and Gabe Blix (Kel O’Neill) in fact mostly live up to the image of the heroic soldier in Iraq for the right reasons. But the film is not simplistic enough to make this a story of a few bad apples that need to be sorted out. Rather, it seems to argue that this incident is the inevitable result of the war’s conditions. The soldiers in the movie are not from perfect back grounds, Rush and Flake seem to have been raised in unstable homes, with violent pasts. These unstable individuals, who went to Iraq more out of necessity than out of altruism, are placed in an incredibly tense and stressful situation and like soldiers in every war make the mistake of demonizing their enemies.
These kinds of incidents have happened in every war before and every war to come, in fact this story very closely mirrors the plot of Brian De Palma’s 1989 Vietnam film Casualties of War. However the similarities between the two films end at the overall story, in fact the entire film is a complete stylistic departure from every other film Brian De Palma has ever made. The typical De Palma film is visually extremely stylish. He often uses very slick widescreen cinematography with lots of color. This was even true in films like Casualties of War, a film in which such treatment generally seemed inappropriate. Instead what we get is a borderline documentary that appears to be culled from various sources like security camera’s, news reports, clips posted on the internet, and especially Angel’s video diaries. These different sources look fairly authentic, though they were in fact all created by De Palma. The video diaries for example have deliberately been made to look amateurish and shaky, and edited using cheesy Final Cut transitions. The security footage is probably the most questionable source, as very few security cameras I know of record sound, but it looks appropriate as they consist of static black and white shots. Also present is footage supposedly from a French documentary crew, which is probably the most professional looking footage in the film. De Palma’s decision to make the documentary crew French helps to underscore the linguistic confusion in the situation being “documented.”
This mockumentary collage approach works both for and against the film. On one hand it is a unique and experimental style and it gives the film a gritty realism that is needed. On the other hand the style isn’t all that aesthetically pleasing at all, this may be the point, but the fact is in no way a fun film to watch. I’m not saying De Palma should have fallen back on his old style like he did for Casualties of War, but a nice compromise could have been reached, perhaps something along the line of Paul Greengrass’ style in films like United 93 and Bloody Sunday.
De Palma seems to have cast mostly unknown actors in order to maintain the illusion of reality. Unfortunately, this decision backfires occasionally, when you’re trying to maintain the illusion of reality you need really strong actors, and the cast here is passable at best. Ty Jones comes across the best here, his small role as Master Sergeant Sweet is probably the best thing in the entire movie. But other actors here are not as successful, especially the actors playing the two rapists who probably have the most challenging roles. Flake and Rush generally come across like stereotypical rednecks when their roles generally require increased psychological complexity.
What Redacted does do particularly well is to simply paint a picture of what Iraq is like. I generally found random slices of life in the movie more interesting than the overall rape storyline. Ultimately I think De Palma’s message has less to do with the conduct of soldiers than it does with the way the war has been reported. The mainstream media has been widely criticized for only showing sanitized images of the war, something this movie is in no way guilty of. Mainstream is the last word anyone should use when describing Redacted. While other movies like Gavin Hood’s Rendition explore current events while remaining within the context of mainstream cinema, Redacted is a very unconventional film that pulls no punches. It’s an experimental film meant for a very narrow niche audience of open-minded people who want to see the horrors of war at their most extreme. This is not perfect by any stretch and its certainly not for everyone, but it’s a ballsy piece of work that’s dramatically different from anything else in theaters now, and for that reason I have a lot of respect for it.
*** out of four