America is going to hate this movie. Doug Liman's The Wall — whose title will forever demand that, when bringing up the film in conversation, you'll have to say, “No, the other Wall” — is a mean little thriller set in our desert wars, and its only American soldiers are a dope and a weaselly atheist with a secret. These two spend most of the running time under fire, pinned down and outfoxed, their occasional efforts at movie-style heroism only making things worse. We never see their lives back home or photos of their sweethearts. We never hear a word about what it is they’re fighting for. And I defy you to spot, in the film’s 90 minutes, one American flag.
When our boys’ tormenter, a sniper hiding someplace in a remote Iraqi construction site, asks Isaac (a grimed-over Aaron Taylor-Johnson) why he's in country at all, our hero can't think of an answer, not even a quip about kicking ass or some boilerplate about leaving no man behind. Liman (Edge of Tomorrow, The Bourne Identity) builds to a grim climax that his movie can't afford to show you — not that seeing it would salve our annoyance at what it actually depicts.
The wide-release American war movie has, since the Bush years, been caught between seemingly irreconcilable impulses: how to honor the courage and sacrifice of our soldiers while acknowledging the mendacity of their mission. Liman bothers with neither patriotism nor politics. “From where I’m sitting, you are the one who looks like a terrorist,” that sniper says, over Isaac’s radio, in movie-padding monologue. But don't look for our wounded, rasping hero to rebut; he’s at war mostly, it seems, because nothing else is working out for him. His only rejoinder of note comes when the taunting sniper — part Axis Sally and part Audible account — inexplicably elects to recite “The Raven.” “What’s that,” Isaac asks, after the first line, “some gay-ass haji poem?” Later, to keep the killer talking and distracted, Isaac says, “You know about books and shit. I thought I might learn about haji Shakespeare and some shit.”
And shit, and shit. Note the well-observed assholery of that dialogue. Isaac speaks like a real dude, pants like a real dude, grates on the nerves like a real dude. Taylor-Johnson honors real dudeness by daring never to be any more arresting a presence than any real dude would be while hunkered down and bleeding in the sand behind a crumbling stone wall. The way to best appreciate the performance might be to each hire someone to film us bleeding in the dirt for an hour and a half — see how hard it is for you to make that interesting to watch. We're not encouraged to like Isaac; only a final-act backstory revelation allows us to find him at all compelling. That makes the film something of a study in audience empathy. Given no reason to care about this guy, outside the bare fact of his service, how much can we invest in his fate?
For me the Jack London survival-story elements proved incidentally compelling. As he has demonstrated in more expensive films, Liman is adept at the practicalities of violence. He makes a sure-handed study of the geography of the battle zone, the effects of bullets and gravity on a stone wall, the difficulties of rigging up a dummy or retrieving supplies without leaving cover. Isaac has to find water, hide from the sun, tend an injury, try to get a radio to work to call for help, and avoid being shot by a world-class sniper whose location he can’t confirm.
The film’s strongest moments, in its opening, find Isaac and a second soldier (that WWE charmer John Cena) surveying a bad patch of wasteland. Camouflaged in bushes on a neighboring hill, they study the half-dozen corpses — all American contractors — littering the construction site. Some are in trucks, some splayed out in the open. All seem to have been killed via head shots. We quickly learn that our troops have been watching the scene for hours without seeing movement. Cena’s grunt elects to stomp down there and check it out once and for all. Liman’s wide shots emphasize Cena’s vulnerability in the unknowable vastness, and his POV cuts to specific details of the site, as seen through Isaac’s scope, invite us to puzzle with the heroes over just what has happened here. The sequence is engaging in ways only the best suspense can manage. Your mind weighs the clues, fills in the blanks.
Too bad that, once the mission goes belly up, there’s little to puzzle over, except just how silly the movie will get. Bullets fly, Isaac finds shelter behind that wall, and soon the clarity of that opening gives way to dithering and time-killing. The villain calls Isaac to indulge the kind of colloquies brilliant murderers in cop movies like to have with detectives; meanwhile, Liman, for all his action acuity, struggles to make lying behind a wall exciting. He manages some tense and rousing sequences, but between them yawn scenes of the killer jabbering bullshit and the hero passing in and out of consciousness.
And then there’s that ending, a provocation I won’t describe. By the time it came around, I found myself less interested in the onscreen drama than I was in the financing of this three-character, one-location filmed play of a thriller that’s somehow opening in every city in America as though it were Lone Survivor 2. An irony: If the The Wall had been budgeted so that it could actually pull off its climax, investment-protecting executives would likely have demanded that that climax be different. The Wall finds a skilled director of mass-market movies working cheaply enough that he’s free to make something America will hate. Somehow, that cussedness stirs hope.