The War Zone (1999) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Scoop's note in white:

Well, I wouldn't use this as a date movie. And you might forget about taking the family, unless you are a member of the Manson family. This is a movie about a severely dysfunctional family. How dysfunctional? Well, dad takes sis to an abandoned machine gun bunker on the seaside cliffs of Devon, where he sodomizes her while junior films it.

And that's a good day.

It's kind of an unusual project from the Disney folks. Probably the most sodomy in a Disney flick since that one where Tigger nailed Eeyore. (Bouncy bouncy, bouncy bouncy. Fun fun fun fun fun. Who-hoo-hoo-hoo!) And you thought Eeyore had a negative attitude before!

OK, I'm kidding about the Disney stuff, and I probably shouldn't joke about such a serious topic.

It is the first time directorial effort from actor Tim Roth, and is a project close to his heart, because he admits in the commentary that both he and his dad were victims of child abuse. He made a powerful movie. I think it is possible to argue that this is the best rookie directorial effort ever. Offhand, I can't remember a first time director making such a universally lauded film.

In addition, the two kids were also first time actors. Lara Belmont went into acting when she finally determined that her family would never get back together with Dion.

Oh, man, I started joking again. Sorry.


Full frontal nudity from the father and sister (Lara Belmont)

some brief breast exposure from the mother (Tilda Swinton) and Aisling O'Sullivan

All joking aside, it is possibly the most relentlessly grim movie you will ever see. It is powerful, but in this case I use that word as a synonym for "depressing". The subject matter is stark enough to begin with, but it is filmed in the minimalist style of Tarkovsky and Bergman, with sparse dialogue, empty interiors and exteriors, limited background music, and glacial pacing. The sun never shines. Nobody ever smiles. It's a horror movie where the horror is real.

This storytelling economy also applies to the details of the characters. Why exactly does dad do this? Why does sis continue to allow it? Does mom know? If so, does she ignore it? If so, why? Why did they have that strange incident in London? We don't know any of these details.

(The incident I referred to: sis takes brother to a friend's flat. Sis persuades the friend to take her brother's cherry, but at the last minute she interrupts them and prevents the act from being completed. Sorry to say I didn't understand this sequence at all, and I didn't see the need for it in the context of the film.)

Actually, I didn't understand the ending either, until I listened to the director's commentary. After striking back at the dad, sis and brother are in the bunker together. She asks what they are going to do, and he goes to shut the door of the bunker, while the camera pulls off to a helicopter shot.

I thought, given their location, this meant that the legacy of abuse had been passed on, and that the brother was going to do the nasty with sis. But Tim Roth said in his commentary that they were simply shutting off the world, and shutting out our prying into their lives. Oh, sure, that's just what they need - to shut out the world and become more isolated from society's norms.

Well, whatever.

These mimimalist films are meant to leave some blurring along the edges, anyway.

DVD info from Amazon

  • Includes full-length commentary from Tim Roth, and a great deal of information about intervention techniques and opportunities in child abuse cases.

  • widescreen anamorphic

Do you want to see it? Place yourself honestly in a category. Critics loved it. Movie buffs liked it a lot. Mainstream moviegoers stayed away in droves. Do you really like Bergman and Tarkovsky? If so, and if you are not immediately turned off by the mature subject matter, this is a perfect example of that type of stark Northern European filmmaking. On the other hand, if you avoid the arthouses, avoid this, because it is art, not entertainment.


The War Zone (1999) was a film that deeply affected me when I did it shortly before its initial release. The film was just as powerful watching it again today.

We are introduced to a family that has moved from London to the dreary outskirts of Devon. Mum is 11 months pregnant from the look of her, Dad is a caring father and easy-going, good-natured person. The daughter is 18, and has a body to incite lust in a stone. The brother is 16, missing his friends in London, and beginning to have strong sexual feelings. His sister's shape is not lost on him. Mom goes into labor, and the whole family drives her to the hospital. On the way, they roll the car. This intro presents a close family unit.

As the film progresses, we discover that what appears to be a happy family is actually a "War Zone." I don't want to write a spoiler, but I will say the real topic in this film is incest, and what it really does to the family unit. For a more thorough plot description, and a great review that I agree with 100%, read the one by James Berardinelli. For another opinion with fewer spoilers, Roger Ebert also wrote a great review on this one.

It is easily the most devastating film I have ever scene, and is brilliant. Two hours after I finished this film, I was still emotionally shattered, as much from the way the story is told as the content. Incest is not a new subject in film, but you generally see an evil ogre and a sweet innocent. That makes the subject easy to understand, and gives us clear heroes and villains. In this film, there are no easy answers. First time director Tim Roth presents the story as something we experience. There is not one flat note in the entire film. The two leads are played brilliantly by first time actor Freddie Cunliffe and actress Lara Belmont. Each and every performance in the film is Oscar material. What a shame that the subject is too difficult for the Academy to consider.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Consensus review: Critics averaged pretty damned close to four stars. Apollo gave it 90. Four from Ebert, Four from Berardinelli. I suppose you might say that Berardinelli did more than merely give it four stars. He picked it as his best picture of 1999, and that was arguably the best year in the history of cinema. I guess he was impressed.

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. 80% positive. The negatives didn't really criticize it. They simply said it was profoundly negative, and impossible to watch.

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary: movie buffs liked it, but they didn't like it as much as the critics did. 7.4 out of 10 at IMdb, and 77/100 from Apollo users. I guess the average was approximately three stars from members at these two sites.

  • Box Office: Average moviegoers didn't take to it, as you might expect. Pretty much nothing at the box. $237,000 total. seven screens. It was shown at the top film festivals, and then it was shown in one theater per town in the top movie towns, and that was it.  No matter how many critics praise a movie like this, it isn't going to head for the top of the box office lists. Tuna told me that most of the people who have seen it have not paid at all, but have seen it at clinics, schools, and therapy sessions that deal with incest and other forms of child abuse.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, Scoopy says, "this is a C+. Disturbing, powerful, very similar to a Tarkovsky movie, but with grimmer subject matter. No entertainment or crossover value at all." Tuna opines, "This is one of those films that could not possibly be better, but will be deeply disturbing to many who watch it. Even though you will probably not enjoy it, you will be moved by it. This is a solid B."

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