Arriving in theaters just in time for the Holocaust-theme season is Defiance (which I mistakenly keep calling Deliverance, a remake of which with this film’s cast would have been a much better idea), Edward Zwick’s based-on-a-true-story account of four Jewish brothers who escape the Nazis before going on to form a resistance community in the Belarussian forest. Bizarrely, Zwick’s film, written by the director and Clayton Frohman, is less an original story than a greatest-hits compilation—a glossy, formulaic summary of every WWII, Nazi-related movie ever made. People flee. People build. People starve. People fight. Repeat. Defiance is not so much a cohesive film as a series of interchangeable, broadstroked scenes—a movie on loop.
From its camera-roving opening, featuring predictable images and sounds of screaming and crying Jews as they’re rounded up to be sent to the camps, to its ludicrous ending in which the good guys ride in to save the day, Zwick has crafted over two hours of repeatedly bad ideas. There’s a mechanical, running-the-extras-through-their-paces kind of feel to the director’s heartless filmmaking; the action-fighting Rambo motif is wearying; and the empty, clichéd platitudes that pass for screenwriting—like “Our vengeance is to live!” and “Every day of freedom is like an act of faith”—are cringe-worthy, as is the requisite, sad-sounding, violin score that accompanies them. Scenes depicting a snowy wedding (juxtaposed with Russians fighting the Nazis) and the passing of a mezuzah pried from the brothers’ dead parents’ doorway (“Take it for good luck!”) before battle—not to mention a mob scene in which the refugees attack a captured German soldier—are pitched at a ridiculously over-the-top level. (And I haven’t even gotten to Daniel Craig’s Tuvia Bielski as Moses leading his people through parted water after which a gravely ill rabbi declares, “I almost lost my faith but you were sent by God to save us,” then coughs and dies.)
And yet the true Moses righteously struggling to lead Defiance out of the trite-filled morass is not the miscast Craig (what’s a talented and tasty goy like him doing in a film like this anyway?), whose British accent slips in and out of his Eastern-European one, but Liev Schreiber as Zus Bielski. Schreiber is downright astonishing, able to hold his head high above the cliché fray to deliver a nuanced, understated, penetrating, and deep performance. It’s almost as if he’s in another movie. (I wish. “Men with guns!” a kid yells in warning midway through. Not only did I not jump up in my seat, but “Ooh—John Sayles. Good idea!” leapt to mind.) By focusing solely on his character, Schreiber deftly sidesteps all of Zwick’s silly Holocaust shtick. He’s the only person on the set that seemed to have trafficked in specifics rather than broad ideas. Where Craig is completely lost, swept up in the tide of cliché, trying his utmost to serve his director’s flawed vision, the underrated Schreiber pledges his allegiance solely to the story. Paralleling the stubborn warrior character he plays, Schreiber basically says, “Fuck you!” to Zwick’s directing. And only in this ballsy performance is the most important act of Defiance staged loud and clear.