By Keith Uhlich
Screened at the 45th New York Film Festival.
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From its opening image (wherein a tried-and-true "Based on actual events" crawl is slowly blacked out to reveal the film's title), Redacted revels in a mixed, often muddled sense of humor and horror.
Those who sense a touch of the late-night sketch comic in Brian De Palma's latest are not far off from the point—Redacted is as much about media infiltration of the senses as it is about documenting (by fictionalizing) the 2006 rape of a teenage Iraqi girl (Zahara Al Zubaidi), and the subsequent murder of herself and her family by several members of the US military. For a Western populace reported to receive the majority of its information via a steady diet of televisual punditry-cum-burlesque, it is somehow perversely appropriate that Redacted represents the basest elements of our nature via a coarse Chris Farley clone (Kel O'Neill). But the joke is not just on us; nor, risking reductive semantics, is it just on them.
Whatever De Palma's personal politics (and Redacted represents these in quite plain, left-slanted sight), he's also a believer in the camera as intermediary, as an interpretive instrument with a life all its own. On one level, Redacted seems a rough, present-tense assemblage of various aural/visual media sources (security cameras, personal video diaries, Internet postings, and faux-documentaries), but the homogenized Hi-Def sheen under which all these elements unfold emphasizes the inherently fictive nature of the piece as a whole. The pretense-laden French-doc-within, Barrage, further gives the game away, what with its hilarious cribs from The Wild Bunch and Barry Lyndon, and subtitles that seem tailored to audiences both within and without Redacted's demi-imaginary universe. The formal play is almost always apparent in De Palma's work (and he finally gets to explicitly reference an oft-cited influence, Appointment in Samarra, John O'Hara's novel-via-Maugham), but it's particularly unsettling here in ways that inspire simultaneous cries, at least from this long-time member of the De Palma-phile peanut gallery, of both "Bravo!" and "Bullshit!"
Two highly varied viewings of Redacted suggest it is a work to be grappled with, but more for what it has to say about the invasive and mutative effects of media than for the soul-crushing horrors of the War in Iraq. Taken as a statement, definitive or otherwise, on the current imbroglio, Redacted is a failure, its performers too stiff and stagebound (or cartoonishly overemphatic), its horrors aesthetically distanced as opposed to transgressive. Naming the film's most morally conflicted character Lawyer (Rob Devaney) and one of its primary bad apples Flake (Patrick Carroll) shows that De Palma isn't out for subtlety, but his cast of unknowns are unable to give these archetypal constructs the necessary inflections that would raise their onscreen dialogues/actions to the resonant level of myth.
No one sequence in Redacted approaches Eriksson's (Michael J. Fox) canted point-of-view shot in Casualties of War as he observes his squadron raping the young Vietnamese girl Oahn (Thuy Thu Le), a multilayered assault on both the body and the body politic, profoundly illuminated by the spiritual gaze of cinema. Redacted, in contrast, stays continuously down and dirty, earthbound. De Palma's aesthetic choices tend towards the obvious: the rape here is shot through a nightvision filter, giving the participants' eyes, whatever the position of their respective moral compasses, a demonic glint, and reinforcing the film's decided lack of an omniscient presence. The Aesop dictum is all-too-apparent: War is hell.
De Palma's bluntness typically masks a cuttingly direct subtext, but here he more often trades illumination for crude, confrontational effects. I am willing to concede that this is to some degree the goal, and certainly the rawness of Redacted contributes as much to its successful shadings as to its failed ones. When De Palma turns his gaze to the Internet, the film's satire becomes trenchant. Ideologies of all stripes are skewered with gleeful abandon, an angry teen's rant against the United States government coming off with about the same (nonexistent) amount of discernment as the clandestine comings-and-goings captured by Islamofascist webcams. These sections also house the film's best performance, by Bridget Barkan as a tearful soldier's wife who blogs about her most intimate fears and trepidations.
De Palma understands both the connective and divisive possibilities of technology, but Redacted ultimately errs more on the side of doomsday than redemption. As in The Black Dahlia, De Palma casts himself in a crucial offscreen role in Redacted's penultimate scene, prodding one of his characters to "tell us a war story," then insisting (after said character's none-too-convincing moment of onscreen moral crisis) that "I need to get my picture." What follows this meta confessional is a series of purportedly real snapshots of wartime atrocities (most of them redacted against the writer/director's will) that effectively sum up the numerous frustrations of De Palma's cri de coeur. Indeed, the swell of a Puccini aria over the final (staged) image is as charged and troubling an ending as this great director has given us—the movie-long meld of the fictional with the factual comes full circle, and this strange, off-putting Hi-Def experiment more or less implodes in an implicit admission of its own ineffectiveness. Maybe that is De Palma's final insult/insight: So much blood spilled over so little.
Keith Uhlich is co-editor of The House Next Door and a contributor to various print and online publications.