Saturday, November 15, 2014

AFI Fest 2014: "'71"

Director: Yann Demange
Runtime: 99 minutes

'71 may star rising Irish actor Jack O'Connell (Starred Up) in its lead role, but it's far more successful as a morally murky thriller that tackles on of modern history's most painful cycles of violence. Set in its titular year, Yann Demange's debut film follows 24 hours in the life of Sgt. Gary Hook (O'Connell), a British soldier left deep in IRA territory in Belfast after being separated from his regiment. Demange, working skillfully off of Gregory Burke's tight, visceral script, has made one hell of a debut feature, which has understandably maintained its strong hype since premiering in Berlin in February.

Though O'Connell gets a few fleeting moments at the outset to give some hints about Sgt. Hook's personality, he quickly becomes an audience cipher once all hell breaks loose. For most of the film Hook is left at the mercy of others. Factions after him include his regiment, the official IRA and its more radical and militant wing, and the local Catholic and Protestant locals. Hook's awful situation wouldn't be quite as awful if the lines distinguishing some of these factions weren't so obscured.

Without leaving the audience completely in the dark, Demange and Burke have created a world filled with double crossers and shifting alliances. With O'Connell as our window into The Troubles, '71 is able to take the audience through a hellacious microcosm of the violence in Northern Ireland. O'Connell gets less to do as an actor beyond the purely physical as '71 progresses, but Demange's handling of the broader story keeps the complex backdrop from becoming overwhelming.

Debut features tend to be either overly ambitious or far too safe, but Demange has pushed himself just enough to make '71 work on its own terms and announce himself as a promising talent. His film is energetic and chaotic without being overblown or rushed, thanks to some vibrant camera work and slick editing. And even though it's more of a director's showcase than a performance piece, all of Demange's cast do well at playing their varying degrees of moral ambiguity. 

Investigating a subject matter like The Troubles is akin to strolling through a minefield. Remain too observant, and a film can send mixed messages about what it depicts. Lean too heavily on one side, and nuance is sucked out of the frame in favor of white-washed propaganda. Demange and Burke go for a point of view that is simple, but not simplistic: The Troubles is hell on earth for everyone; a cycle of human cruelty that continually feeds on itself with no proper end in sight. It's a mature enough angle that gives '71 the room to work as a non-stop thriller while doing enough justice to its setting to avoid cheapening the subtext. '71 isn't one of the great films about The Troubles, but it's one of those uncommonly striking first films that hints at future greatness from its director, all while standing proudly on its own nimble feet.

Grade: B

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