THE WALL ½
2017, R, 81 mins.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Isaac / John Cena as Matthews / Laith Nakli as Juba
Directed by Doug Liman / Written by Dwain Worrell
Not to be confused with THE GREAT WALL from earlier this year, THE WALL is a new American War film that's a frequently masterful exercise in minimalist filmmaking economy.
actors (one of which appears in voice only off camera) and containing a
singular setting throughout its taut and lean 81 minutes, the film is not
so much a war film or a commentary on the nature of war, per se, as much
as it is a chillingly suspenseful outdoor survival thriller that just
happens to take place in a real world conflict. Dripping with an abundance of foreboding atmosphere, THE WALL
does a bravura job of evoking not only the senselessness of war, but also
the emotional toil that war has on frightened young soldiers.
The film is also
a wonderful change of pace for director Doug Liman, whom previously has
established himself in large scale, big budget, Hollywood blockbuster
action films (THE BOURNE IDENTITY, MR.
AND MRS. SMITH, and the criminally underrated EDGE
OF TOMORROW). Using an exceedingly stripped down filmmaking aesthetic that
caters to the film's sense of startling immediacy and verisimilitude,
Liman does wonders with THE WALL's incredibly limited locals and uses that
to his very advantage. Even
though the film has a scale that's positively dwarfed by countless other
war dramas, Liman manages to nevertheless convey the mad brutality of
combat on a deeply intimate level. Very
few other recent genre examples that I've seen have as much of an
enthralling "you-are-there" sense of ambience as much as this one.
There's not much
of an overarching narrative here. That's
not a criticism. Instead, THE
WALL feels more like an insular three-man, one act play than a traditional
war movie with a definitive beginning, middle and end.
Set in 2007 during the war in Iraq, the film introduces us two
American soldiers, Matthews and Isaac (John Cena and Aaron Taylor-Johnson
respectively) that have been tasked with investigating a specific stretch
of oil pipeline that's been under siege by a pesky and very well hidden
Iraqi sniper (voiced by Laith Nakli).
The pair have been monitoring their assigned area for well over
22 hours in the sun drenched desert without being able to spot anyone or
anything. Matthews decides that
enough is enough and proceeds to come out of camouflaged cover and
investigate the site on foot, much to the chagrin of his spotter/partner.
Matthews makes some
inroads, but begins to smell that something is certainly off as he's
collecting the radios of multiple dead soldiers.
Without warning, he's shot and mortally wounded by an apparent
sniper, which springs Isaac into swift action.
Unfortunately, Isaac is also quickly wounded in the leg by the same
apparent sniper, but he does manage to flee from his fallen comrade and
into cover against a nearby wall (hence, the film's title).
Without any ability to run, let alone walk, Isaac realizes that he
may be bunkered down behind the wall until he can radio in for help, but
when he tries to contact reinforcements he shockingly discovers that the
sniper that shot both him and Matthews has commandeered the radio signal and
is now playing cerebral mind games with his prey.
Worst of all, he's the dreaded sniper that's guilty of
perpetrating most of the killing that Matthews and Isaac were sent in to
investigate. What then
commences is an ultimate battle of wills between Issac and his attacker,
with the latter frustratingly having the complete upper hand at every
I generally love
films made within tight limitations.
THE WALL ostensibly takes place at, yes, the aforementioned wall
and hones in almost exclusively on Isaac as he desperately tries to find a
manner of locating the sniper and thwarting his attacks.
Ultimately, THE WALL is an exercise in nail biting peril that does
a persuasive job of cementing viewers right up
alongside Isaac as he struggles to stay alive.
Some of the film's finest moments occur at poor Isaac's expense, as
the sniper mercilessly taunts him with sadistic remarks when he's not trying
to maintain a falsely civil exchange with him.
Isaac's plight is nightmarish, to say the least, seeing as he has to contend with a
partner that's dying and baking in the midday sun (leaving cover and going
to his aid would be a death sentence), but he also has to deal with his
own wounds while resisting the sniper's constant bickering over the radio
to gain a psychological advantage. Isaac's body is broken, but his mind becomes as equally
broken the longer he stays in communication with this psycho.
technically assured and refreshingly restrained direction is a pitch
perfect match to the film's relative plainness.
It would have been so bloody easy for a lesser action director to
drum up the stylistic and editorial tricks to artificial levels, but Liman's less-is-more measured approach helps ground
audience members more systematically. He never breaks up sequences into a hyperactive barrage of
micro-cuts with swooshing and headache inducing camera work.
No, Liman makes usage of static set ups and long takes to
create the eerie sense of the mortal danger that Isaac finds himself in.
On paper, THE WALL is nothing more than a cat and mouse game
between enemy combatants, but Liman elevates and enriches this material by
getting into the headspaces of his characters and evoking the
environmental dangers of the desert as well.
Isaac could just as easily die of dehydration as much as he could
his gun wound...or via another shot from his attacker.
atmosphere here is like a tertiary character in THE WALL, and Liman frames
the glaring harshness of the terrain with a brow beating bleakness and
despair. The thanklessly
lived-in and textured performances blend in perfectly with Liman's
understated direction. Pro
wrestler John Cena, even though he isn't in the film much, is solid and
wholeheartedly credible as his grizzled soldier; like Dwayne Johnson, Cena
seems equal to the task of partaking in action films and comedies with
relative ease (see his amusing cameo in TRAINWRECK).
THE WALL is Aaron Taylor-Johnson's film through and through, and
coming off of his tour de force work in last year's NOCTURNAL
ANIMALS he once again emerges here giving another exceptional
chameleon-like performance as his beleaguered military man.
This is an especially tricky role, seeing as it forces
Taylor-Johnson to play it in the prone position for 60-plus minutes;
it's not only a commanding piece of performance physicality, but the actor
also has to plausibly tap into the fractured psyche of this poor soul that
has death breathing down his door.
If THE WALL were to have any weakness then it would be in its final 15 or so minutes, during which time Liman seems to lose the overall haunting sense of tension filled momentum that he was generating beforehand, which all builds to a conclusion that will arguably polarize many. That, and there are moments involving the radio conversations between the sniper and Isaac that try to dabble into the geo-politics of America's involvement in the Middle East that comes off as somewhat obvious and forced. Thankfully, THE WALL never really tries to be a sobering indictment of war, nor is he interested in broader notions of what enlisted men do what they do for God and country. More or less, Liman's film is, for the most part, a sensationally engineered and executed tale of a small scale struggle set amidst a much larger conflict. It also never wears out its welcome (its lean and mean running time feels just right) to needlessly become a bloated and self-indulgent war thriller (Liman also absconds away from other standard action film accouterments like a bombastic music score, which there is none to be found here until the end credits).
During a relative summer film season of mega pricey and overproduced franchise efforts and sequels, the scaled down veracity of THE WALL is a most refreshing surprise.