Dark victory on the home front

Movie: The War Zone

Our Rating: 3.50

The camera never blinks in "The War Zone," even when it uncovers a sinister, closeted secret -- one whose discovery inevitably upsets the fragile balance of a family whose outwardly healthy relationships are built on a shaky foundation of lies. The proof of that wickedness is revealed about halfway through actor Tim Roth's accomplished directorial debut, arriving in a scene that's as disturbing and sexually graphic as any that's likely to hit art-house screens this year. It's a challenging filmgoing experience, to say the least.

Lest the curious be frightened away, rest assured that the rewards are legion. There's Roth's leisurely, evenly measured direction (of a screenplay adapted by Alexander Stuart from his novel of the same title); some finely nuanced performances; and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey's austere shots of a chilly, damp, endless winter in England's Devon countryside. It all adds up to a perceptive examination of the forces at work in deeply dysfunctional relationships. Old hurts, repressed rivalries and long-stifled emotions become hopelessly entangled, generating untold pain that may never find relief.

"The War Zone" is about incest, but in a larger sense surveys the damage that parents can unintentionally but routinely inflict on children and the harm siblings can cause each other.

An unexpected disaster near the beginning of the film hints at the emotional and physical violence to come. The family's unnamed Dad (Ray Winstone) and Mom (Tilda Swinton) are rushing to the hospital to welcome a new baby daughter into a fold that already includes their blossoming 18-year-old daughter, Jessie (Lara Belmont), and the moody 15-year-old Tom (Freddie Cunliffe). Suddenly, their car skids and flips over. As if by a miracle, everyone survives, and the child is born on the spot. Each family member, however, emerges bruised, bloodied and battered.

They return to a household that's relatively cheery at first. Mom lovingly attends to the needs of her newborn. Dad pitches in around the house and enjoys a seemingly warm connection with his needy teen-agers. Jessie and Tom gain much solace from their easygoing, relaxed friendship.

But evidence soon emerges of a sexual relationship between father and daughter, and Tom is spurred on to conduct a private investigation, though he hopes in vain not to dig up confirmation of his suspicions. The moment of truth -- captured via a carefully concealed video camera -- is hardly to be celebrated. Heartbroken and sickened, Tom disposes the evidence, later hiding out in the very concrete bunker where the deed was done.

A scoundrel's comeuppance has seldom been less satisfying than it is here. At risk is the final disintegration of a family whose wounds might otherwise have been healed -- or at least scabbed over.

Credit Winstone for his complex, chilling performance as a father who's so self-deluded that he attempts to blame his impending domestic destruction on his son. Dad believes his own deceptions so fervently that he nearly tricks us into sympathizing with his view of the situation. And that's no mean feat.

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