I Declare War puts forth the rather bold proposition, via the allegorical presentation of a bunch of pre-teens playing war games in the woods, that real-life armed conflict is little more than the result of a childlike impulse to cause harm to others because of feelings of inferiority or a simple will to power. Directors Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson achieve this equation by presenting the group of teenage boys (and one particularly crafty girl) that engage in a capture-the-flag-style game as if they were the stars of a real war movie. As several of their characters become increasingly unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality, so Lapeyre and Wilson blur these same lines in their presentation of the fake combat by introducing seemingly authentic weapons into the hands of the young combatants which emit what look and sound like real gunfire, even as they make it clear that the kids’ play is firmly in the realm of make-believe.
Taking place entirely on the “battlefield,” the film charts the maneuvers of two teams, one led by perennial champ and master strategist PK (Gage Munroe), and the other, following an early game coup, headed up by the sadistic Skinner (Michael Friend). As the normal rules of engagement break down, anything becomes fair game, including enhanced interrogation. This last option is carried out by Skinner on a captured foe who he ties to a tree and tortures by placing a piece of wood on his body and weighing him down with rocks. For Skinner, these gestures are motivated by a desire to avenge his negligible status in high school by sticking it to another kid who he views as a usurper. Like many people who commit war crimes, the film suggests, Skinner is using the fog of war as cover for attaining a sense of power lacking from his daily life by denying the humanity of another combatant. For all the fake setting of the war games, the physical and psychic pain he inflicts is all too real.
And yet, as provocative as its premise is, I Declare War rarely takes us past its rather obvious conclusions about the potential bestial nature of kids and how that may translate to the larger battlefields. In fact, beyond a certain rather limited point, it fails to adequately pursue the connections between real and fake warfare, shifting its focus and confining its scope to the light probing of individual psychologies and the enactment of increasingly sadistic scenarios that are as unpleasant to watch as they are unenlightening to contemplate. The result is a film whose boldness of conception isn’t sustained by any equally intriguing insights, or at least none that will come as a surprise to anyone at all familiar with The Lord of the Flies.