“You are not leaving this country”, a British lieutenant presumptively yells at a fairly ungrueled squad of soldiers, perhaps the least emotionally-prepared-for-war platoon to be the center of a gripping war thriller. It’s an easier trivialization to make for the Brit than for either of the other members of the United Kingdom, which just recently faced disbandment based on Scotland’s vote for or against independence. Their lot of disrespect from Britain isn’t pretty, but it’s nowhere close to the degree of public violence that Ireland plunged into in the 1970s. Surely there’s an alternate version of recent events that involves Ireland’s outrage at still being part of an unhappy union, but recent events aren’t the only thing making Yann Demange’s ’71 a jarring visceral experience.
That’s putting it lightly, even. It’s an absolute horror film, made all the more terrifying by how comfortably it begins. Jack O’Connell is Gary, one of many vastly unseasoned military recruits thrust into the deteriorating conditions of Belfast, Ireland to ostensibly aid peacekeeping. It takes just one day on the job for the complete nastiness of the situation to reveal itself, and just as long for Gary to be caught irretrievably in the crossfire. Separated from his platoon, he finds himself set upon by multiple factions of an ethically divided world he’s the first to express that he doesn’t understand. The civilian riot they’re caught in is jarring enough already for the ugly political intimidations the soldiers aren’t active in, but are undeniably complicit in.
That moral line gets even thicker and murkier with the twin shifts from day to night and from granular 16mm to vibrant, often blazing digital. While chased by evidently trigger-happy, massively irrational IRA radicals, he also happens upon the seedier side of the overly rational undercover overseers of Belfast. If this night faintly feels like it’s taking us and Gary on a carnival of the horrors plaguing domestic Ireland during the Troubles, from civilian bombings to home invasions, it shouldn’t be assumed that this is anything but the ordinary. Daily life in Belfast is understood as roughly the same at the beginning as it is at the end, the main shift being a massive one of perception. It’s not totally dissimilar from the cinematic journey of Gravity, where our emotional takeaways are of sound and image.
Admittedly the political and communal undertow adds a heightened tension to proceedings, as the fate of this single soldier is quickly trivialized in the eyes of those meant to be saving him. Gary’s future isn’t the only one on the line, his arc humanely mirrored by an emotionally cut-off child member of the IRA, whose aggression is filtered through entirely the wrong leader in Quinn (Killian Scott). Gary barely gets the chance for a heart-to-heart with either between extended fits of them chasing and shooting at him, not that he’d have much to emotionally spill out to them. While old enough to enlist, he’s apparently not old enough for political biases or deep relational ties to develop, outside his orphaned brother back home. Even in that regard he finds a surrogate case in Belfast, with the spry, hard-witted assistance of a Loyalist child (Corey McKinley) engendering a similarly brother-ish bond – It’s not quite lengthy enough to be brotherly, but bond sticks and bitterly breaks deeply nonetheless.
The most immediate physical reaction, though, is that of an inescapable thriller, the craft fastened tightly to Gary’s perspective. Managing an outsider’s perspective of a traumatic period or incident is seemingly an evasive one, all the dicier when framed from the perspective of violence’s perpetrators. But Gary’s journey is more akin to Lore than Act of Killing, discovering his way morally with every near-miss and unlucky Belfast local blown shockingly to pieces. The ears rarely stop ringing, the blaze of fire scarcely slips off the characters’ faces, let alone out of their eyes. It’s violence imbedded through sense and experience, a wake-up call the lame members of Gary’s platoon could learn. His lieutenant (Sam Reid) is never more than a novice eagle scout, following orders without emotionally considering the situation for himself, with devastating, disconnected consequences.
With the world and vibrant sensory experience taking hold, it’d be easy for Jack O’Connell to get lost beneath the urgent necessity of the storytelling, but he’s never less than absorbing as a conduit for our own outsider identity in this conflict. His role is witness and witless victim, and if his character lacks agency, it’s to display the needless aggression that agency affords its hosts. Nothing is solved by the time the film is ended, but very little’s been solved between Britain and the countries attached to it to this day. Such impasses have historically been solved with violence, though ’71 emphasizes just how asinine the pursuit of such is.
Bottom Line: Balancing piercing political stakes with visceral human ones, ’71 is as absorbing and vibrant as a thriller as it is an encapsulation of Irish desperation & resistance.