A few pithy lines of onscreen text explain the narrative context of The Wall. It is late 2007. George Bush has already declared victory in Iraq. Reconstruction has begun. Staff Sergeant Matthews (John Cena) and his spotter Sergeant Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are scoping out a construction site that was a scene of a deadly attack. Convinced that whoever attacked is long gone, Matthews steps out of cover to get a closer look. He is then shot in the hip and taken down. Isaac goes after him, and is soon wounded as well. Isaac finds some cover behind a crumbling wall of loose stones, and with no resources whatsoever, must try to find a way to defeat an enemy that he can’t even see.The movie is mainly made up of scenes of Isaac crawling in the dirt, pushing through the pain of his injury, helpless to really do anything else. For reasons that only become clear much later on, his invisible foe is taunting him over the radio, prodding him to have a conversation. The movie keeps the action limited and horrifically lethal. The protagonists never really seem to be more than a couple minutes away from death, their opponent too competent, their injuries too severe. And it is through this desperate situation that the film effectively scales down the ideological abstractions of the war on terror.It doesn’t always work, though. Too much of the conversation between Isaac and the enemy sniper involves a backstory that never really becomes engaging. There isn’t a whole lot gained in exploring the psychology of the main character, his revelations ultimately less effective than the bigger metaphors at play. The film, through the basic elements of its plot, posits a greater pathology to America’s presence in the Middle East. The method and the reasoning portrayed in the picture make a fair case for the intractability of the conflict, with these men trapped in a cycle that can only lead to more death.And so the film thrives best when it keeps it simple. It is at its most compelling when it just lingers on the awfulness of the situation. The film makes it clear in its most lucid moments that these soldiers are competent, but out of their depth. The enemy presented here, with his seemingly preternatural abilities, might be entirely fictional, but the metaphor holds up surprisingly well as long as it stays within the confines of the practical reality being presented. When it starts to dig up the past, the enemy starts to sound like a Bond villain, and that is detrimental to the overall effect of the movie.Subdued filmmaking and sparse production design help ground things as well. The movie is able to make the wide-open spaces of the setting feel like little more than a dusty, ugly prison. The film is more or less carried on the back of Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who is pretty much the only actor on screen for most of the movie. And like the rest of the movie, he works best when he is dealing purely with the physical present. He isn’t able to do anything to make his character’s shaky backstory any better.The Wall benefits greatly from being succinct. At just under ninety minutes, the movie manages to get out before it outstays its welcome. Having said that, it still comes perilously close to becoming tedious, with long stretches of it devoted to backstory that feels like little more than an obligation. The movie thrives when it limits itself to the psychical world: the sand, the stone, the pierced flesh and broken bones. And somewhere out there, a man pointing a gun, promising death to soldiers who don’t really know why they’re there, fighting an enemy they do not fully comprehend.
THE WALL IS NOW SHOWING IN SELECTED CINEMAS NATIONWIDE.