War is arguably the most devastating situation a human being can put themselves through. Some argue for a world of disarmament. Others believe war is a necessary evil. But no matter your opinion on the act, everyone agrees it ravages the minds, bodies, and souls of those sent to fight. Additionally, the country serving as the backdrop for the combat suffers economic and geographic stress as well. War movies help make sense of acts that seemingly make no sense. The Wall seeks to explore all that and more in a pulse-quickening thriller.
For 99% of its run time, The Wall handily achieves all its goals. The success lies in its simplicity. Two American soldiers are pinned down by an Iraqi sniper. The sniper exhibits psychotic behavior, and torments the soldiers before moving in for kill shots. The whole affair plays like Phone Booth, with Aaron Taylor-Johnson in the Colin Farrell role, and Laith Nakli voicing the menacing sniper known only as “Juba.” With such a small cast, the need for good performances is crucial. Luckily, Doug Liman scored big across the board.
John Cena is great as Matthews. He’s not given a lot to do, but one hopes this is the beginning of a big career for the professional wrestler. Nakli’s voice work is incredible top to bottom and he portrays Juba as cool, calculating and tragic all at once. But the standout is Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Isaac. He is the most featured character on screen, and carries the weight of the claustrophobic thrills with ease. Between The Wall and Nocturnal Animals, an award is in his near future. Isaac is cocky, abrasive, and stubborn. But he’s also easy to root for and his sarcastic back and forth with Cena helps solidify his character as someone who takes brothers in arms seriously.
Director Doug Liman makes the piece soar on a miniscule budget. He establishes the geography of the construction site early and often which leads to frantic map making in the viewer’s head trying to determine the location of the sniper. Many sequences are set to dialogue and sniper scopes, and it works every time. The escalation of the situation feels organic, and the dust practically leaps off the screen into the audience’s eyes and mouth. It’s one of the most “boots on the ground” films about the recent Iraq war in existence. Liman is a consistent director, and does not waver here.
The Wall works as a thriller and war movie, and deserves to be called one of the best films about the Iraq War. Until it doesn’t. The movie is impossible to discuss without discussing the ending. I will do my best to avoid details. but consider this a minor spoiler warning for the film. The last five seconds of the film completely undo all of the positive elements of the rest of the film. It’s cynical with no actual motivation or reason why. The film does not deal in nihilism, and chooses to descend into it with its final frames and then cue up a rock song over the credits as if to say “wasn’t that badass?!” It’s not just tonally inconsistent, it’s a betrayal of the rest of the film’s themes. The movie isn’t overly optimistic or hopeful, but it certainly is not as pessimistic as its ending.
As the sandstorms clear, The Wall is an infuriating affair. Real-time thrillers can be incredibly effective when done correctly. And The Wall does nearly everything correctly. But when the movie sends its audiences out of the theater, it ensures that they will only be talking about the ending. The ending supersedes the meatier parts of the character arcs over the rest of the film. There are tons of great performances, and Doug Liman ramps up the tension with the best of them. But the final moments are full of contempt for the audience from its screenwriter.
Score: 5/10 (8/10 if you stop watching with 30 seconds left)
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