Doug Liman’s The Wall is a relentlessly cruel, pugilistic piece of cinema that essentially treats combat theater like hyper-masculine torture porn. Unlike most war movies, it doesn’t portray the horrors of major battles or try to make a statement about the moral nature of combat itself. Instead, it zeroes in on a microcosmic conflict, centering itself on far more ambiguous ethical territory, thus telling a story in which it is hard to become fully emotionally invested.
The war over, rebuilding the Iraqi infrastructure is left to groups of military contractors and the armed officers who accompany them. Two such soldiers – SGT Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and SSG Matthews (John Cena) – find themselves marooned in the baking Middle Eastern landscape following a sniper’s massacre of their contracting crew. When Matthews attempts to gather resources from the corpses and is shot and severely wounded, Isaac tries to help him and is himself gravely injured by the sniper’s fire. He drags himself behind a dusty, crumbling wall and finds himself bleeding profusely from the gunshot wound, without water and with a broken radio antenna, unable to alert his troops to send help.
As Isaac tries to keep his wits about him and gather his courage for the ordeal he faces, he finds himself in antagonistic conversation by internal radio band with the sniper himself. First mocking him, then trying to draw him into revelations about his life, his comrades and his mission, the Iraqi gunman piques Isaac’s survival instinct and sharpens his resolve to get both himself, and his comrade, home again. There is very little outward violence in that very little blood is shed – but there are elements of genuine horror woven through the psychic terrain of the film.
However, there is very little sense of purpose in the conflict, outside of sheer racial hatred and mistrust, and the narrative is devoid of sentimentality and depth of philosophy. It tries to build audience sympathy for its American protagonist, but the only reason we’re given to feel for him seems to be the very fact that he is American, that he is a soldier, and that he has been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. The isolating guilt and misery he carries with him for a fallen brother-in-arms is mostly merely hinted at; we don’t get a real idea of who Isaac is as a person until it’s too late to really care about him – and his identity as a military man is shadowed by a lot of weirdly forced bravado, rather than any real development of kinship between him and the viewer.
It’s difficult to carry an entire narrative mostly on the shoulders of a single character, but Taylor-Johnson does his best with SGT Isaac’s plight, considering the material he has been given. The best elements of The Wall come from the brutal realities of life in the field – the loneliness and detachment of military life, the harsh situations and environments in which soldiers often find themselves, and the creeping darkness of human nature at its most hardened and pitiless. Time and again, hope is dangled in front of Isaac only to be painfully ripped away from him, and the result is a joyless onslaught with a genuinely miserable, maddening ending.
The insular struggle between the American soldier and the Iraqi sniper – known only as “Juba” (Laith Nakli) – is a taut psychological showdown, but where it might have benefitted from some real cultural and personal insight for its participants, it falls short by opting instead to focus on petty two-way mental torment. It’s difficult to get a genuine read from either character as to their true motives as they play chess with racism, politics and survival – and they seem to exist purely to try annihilating one another for jingoistic reasons, which, while perhaps the very point the film wants to make in that there is nothing but emptiness, despair and destruction to be found in such ideological shallowness, does not land with any kind of emotional clarity. We know so little about these characters that it’s hard to gain a firm grasp on their real inner personalities, which makes it challenging to get enough inside their heads to connect with them.
But The Wall – despite its insistence upon beating the audience over the head with its callousness and pummeling its main characters with hardship after hardship throughout its short running time – does have its strengths. The logistics and psychological makeup of a military sniper situation play out realistically, thanks to consultation from a former U.S. RANGER sniper, Nicholas “The Reaper” Irving. The ruthless setting and abject remoteness of the situation in which the characters find themselves is starkly represented, adding some elements of symbolism to connect Isaac’s singular persona with his surroundings. Unfortunately, though, the film doesn’t dig deep enough, and as a result the internal battles waged are not tightly enough constructed, lending it an ultimately lackluster buildup to a downer of a resolution. It’s ambiguous what the filmmakers are trying to say, here, and the characters and narrative suffer for it as fiercely as SGT Isaac and SSG Matthews do of their wounds.
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