Toward the end of Brian De Palma’s Redacted, a pierced and tattooed antiwar protester hisses into the camera, “You don’t see the My Lai massacre in the movies because the truths of that fascist orgy are just too hellish for even liberal Hollywood to cop to.” This is the director’s backhanded way of complimenting himself. You see, in 1989, a decade after Apocalypse Now and Coming Home and The Deer Hunter, De Palma (who had been detained in the interim directing films about cross-dressing slashers and power-drilled ingénues) at last offered his own bold take on Vietnam in Casualties of War, which focused on a My Lai-like atrocity in which American G.I.s raped and murdered an innocent Vietnamese girl. Take that, queasy liberal Hollywood.
Now, De Palma offers his measured commentary on another unpopular war with Redacted, a film in which American marines ... rape and murder an innocent Iraqi girl. Grant De Palma this much: At least he did not wait until 14 years after hostilities concluded to pull his catch-all war metaphor from the dark cupboard of his psyche.
But grant him nothing else. As anyone familiar with De Palma’s rapidly declining oeuvre might have anticipated, Redacted is crude, exploitative, and politically simple-minded. Harder to predict given the subject matter is that it is also, for its first half at least, remarkably tedious.
Redacted’s signature gimmick is that it is, in theory, told entirely through “found” materials: home movies taken by one of the American soldiers; excerpts from a French documentary; newscasts on an Arab network; security-camera footage at the U.S. base; embedded video on a jihadi web site; etc. It’s easy to see the possibilities inherent in such a structure--for withholding and releasing information, for offering conflicting versions of the truth--but De Palma chooses not to take advantage of them. His narrative is linear and undisputed. Rather than use the assembled visual artifacts to make his story more sophisticated, he uses them to disguise the story’s extreme simplicity: A squad of marines manning a checkpoint in Samarra grow disillusioned and dehumanized by the violences they see and commit. Shortly after their beloved master sergeant (Ty Jones) is killed by an IED, two of them decide to break into an Iraqi house and rape a 15-year-old girl who lives there. Prior to the rape, they murder the girl’s family; following it, they kill the girl and burn her body.
The film divides neatly into two halves, with this atrocity at the center. The first 45 minutes is buildup, and to call it slow would be to insult inertia. Apart from the death of the master sergeant and another brief, violent encounter, little happens: The soldiers bicker and shoot the breeze; the mechanics of the checkpoint are explained and demonstrated. The very mundanity of the footage seems intended to sell us on the film’s verisimilitude, and to some degree it succeeds.
Then, at the midpoint, the two most degenerate marines propose the rape to their squadmates, and all the film’s bids for authenticity are quickly undone. In part this is because the cast is made up mostly of TV extras, and while they’re perfectly able to sell scenes of soldiers standing around or goofing off, they falter badly when it comes to the dramatic heavy lifting. In part it is because De Palma has of late had trouble coaxing recognizably human performances from even gifted actors (say, Nicolas Cage in Snake Eyes, or Aaron Eckhart in The Black Dahlia). And in part it is because the “found” footage gimmick, while perfectly adequate to conveying the rhythms of daily life, is almost uniquely unsuited to capturing the discussion and commission of war atrocities--activities that, as a general rule, people hesitate to perform on camera.
The entire second half of the film is a series of contrivances intended to get around this inconvenient fact. Easily the most preposterous is De Palma’s having his camera-happy marine (Izzy Diaz) secretly film the rape and murder of the young girl with a tiny, helmet-mounted camera because he thinks the repulsive footage will help him get into film school. (Since, as we all know, USC holds open a few slots for self-documented war criminals.) But there are other contortions almost as ridiculous: The fat, bullying rapist ringleader (Daniel Stewart Sherman), who seems to go out of his way to make sure he’s standing in front of a security camera every time he threatens to kill his squad-mates if they squeal on him; an unintentionally hilarious scene in which a soldier is filming himself on the street when a van pulls up and masked insurgents jump out and abduct him.
Worse, De Palma seems to think the spliced-together format releases him from such typical cinematic obligations as narrative continuity, character development, and aesthetic vision. Almost every scene in the latter part of the film is a self-contained, hyper-theatrical minidrama, an episode intended to express, as bluntly as possible, exactly one ideological data point: War turns men into monsters; the military brass coddles offenders and punishes whistleblowers; we all watch and do nothing.
Thanks to Redacted’s clumsy, transparent politicking, the crime it portrays never feels remotely real, despite being closely based on an actual atrocity committed by American troops in Mahmudiyah in 2006. (De Palma evidently relocated the events in order to wedge in an awkward, pseudoliterary reference to John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra.) Redacted is intended to be shocking, controversial, and, yes, offensive to some viewers. The surprise is that De Palma is now too inept even to offend.
CHRISTOPHER ORR is a senior editor at The New Republic.