APRIL 11, 2017
While I'm neither a scholar or even dedicated fan of Ben Wheatley (I've only seen two of his movies, but Free Fire is one of my most anticipated films of the year, if that makes up for it), the name means enough to me by now to know that whatever the project is, it will be an interesting one. To be fair, Tank 432 (formerly Belly of the Bulldog) is merely executive produced by him, which is often a ceremonial credit one lends to a pal in order to get the film a bit more attention (hey, it worked!), and writer Nick Gillespie is a frequent collaborator of Wheatley's, making his feature debut here. I can't speak as to whether or not that is definitely the case here, but if you thought Wheatley's own films were puzzling and cold, you should steer far clear of this one, as it makes something like Kill List look like the most formulaic studio release in ages.
I don't usually do plot summaries, but I'll break tradition here because, quite frankly, it's pretty much all I can say about the film with any certainty. A group of mercenary soldiers are trying to transport two hooded POWs (if this is even a war) on foot when they come across some corpses and a car that won't start. They make their way further and find a tank, but before they can fully check it out someone starts shooting at them so they dive inside and shut the door, inadvertently trapping themselves. Then they start going through the motions of single-location horror (trust and mental states break down in equal measures) and people start dying. Our lead (Rupert Evans from The Boy) is kind to the prisoners while the rest of the squad is not, and one soldier hates rookies - and now I've also told you everything I learned about the characters in 90 minutes.
To be fair, I am not now nor have I ever been much of a fan of these kind of aloof, "mood above coherence" horror or thriller movies, because I tend to prefer a narrative that I can get a grasp on and characters I can give a shit about (or at least tell apart, which I had trouble doing at first until two of the men were removed from the equation). Nothing wrong with a little mystery, and I don't need every question answered, but this is a movie that starts not unlike a segment in Memento, albeit without the "OK now we will flash back ten minutes so you can see how he ended up in this chase scene" explanations. I actually had to double check the runtime because it seemed like my Blu-ray skipped forward a few minutes, and it's far too late by the time we learn that not knowing what was going on in the first minute was part of the point. That I'm still unsure of what the point WAS is just the cherry on top, I guess. Gillespie based the film on his own short story "The Smith Hill Forest Incident", but I'm not sure if it was ever published, because the only evidence of its existence that I was able to find online was in reviews/press notes for this movie. Perhaps it will yield some clues if he ever releases it, though if it's not in the next few hours, I'll likely forget all about it.
That said, there's JUST enough here to give it a look as long as you're prepared for such rampant ambiguity. As you might expect given the "psychological" tagging, hallucinations are common, and the assorted visuals that accompany them - gas masked specters, flash-forwards of our characters covered in a mysterious orange powder, insects and the like - do their job in unsettling the audience just as the characters are. The claustrophobic setting is also inspired; when I heard the movie involved characters trapped in a tank I assumed that they were "trapped" as in pinned down and not able to get far from it, not literally trapped inside one. Gillespie cheats a bit to give his angles (i.e. the camera is aimed at the right side of Evans' face, but on the reverse shot we can see he's up against the side of the tank and therefore no camera could be there unless that side was removed), but apart from establishing shots used to show time passing he stays inside with everyone, rather than cut to other characters or a command center or anything like that. They're in the tank for a good 45-50 minutes before this approach is abandoned, enough time to be as sick of being in there as they are. The story may be incoherent, but the film as a whole sure allows us to feel the same way its characters do.
Also, I'm not sure if this is a compliment or not (complisult? h/t Community), but since we don't know what's going on or what these folks are all about, the movie is NOT the latest in the endless series of war-set horror films where our heroes are undone by the traumas of war, like Deathwatch, R Point, Below, The Squad, etc. Do these people deserve their fate? Are their pursuers actually the ghosts (real or imagined) of innocent victims of the war they're fighting? Couldn't tell you, so we can say they're NOT and this is different than 90% of horror films with war backdrops. Much like found footage movies about abandoned asylums, I think I've seen enough of those movies, so I was a bit relieved when I realized this was not the latest one. And even if it is, at least it's still different, because those I usually understood and here I was just frequently wondering if I perhaps fell asleep or somehow activated a "shuffle scenes" feature on my Blu-ray player.
But like I said, there are folks who really love those kinds of movies, and they're probably not being satisfied as of late, especially not on a professional level with recognizable actors and actual production value. The actors are fine, the score is quite good and it's never dull to watch, so it technically meets watchability requirements - it just lacked that element that makes some hard to follow movies compelling (see: most David Lynch), where I might want to rewatch a film to see if I could get the answers on a second go around. Here, they didn't give me enough to care to do that, but if I'm not in the target audience I guess it doesn't matter much what I think. You guys can keep making fun of me for liking Shocker or whatever, it's fine.
What say you?
*Yes, war + orange usually means Agent Orange, but if that's what it's supposed to be I think Gillespie looked at the wrong symptoms.