Incest shatters a calm surface in The War Zone.

Sick at Heart 

Incest shatters a calm surface in The War Zone.

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The War Zone opens with a black screen and the sound of waves gently crashing against the shore. The methodical ebb and flow of the water produces a soothing rhythm and a sense of tranquility. The film's first visual image is equally evocative -- a beautiful section of seashore, buttressed by windswept cliffs. Only slowly do we begin to notice the starkness of the landscape and sense the bone-chilling dampness that clings to it.

For his directorial debut, the British actor Tim Roth (The Legend of 1900, Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs) has chosen a most disturbing subject matter: incest. And he presents an unflinching portrait of it. This film isn't easy to watch; uncompromising in its depiction of child abuse, it demands from its audience more than many people may wish to give.

Based on the controversial 1989 novel by the British writer Alexander Stuart, The War Zone concerns an outwardly normal, middle-class family that has just moved from London to the countryside. The central character is 15-year-old Tom (newcomer Freddie Cunliffe), a pimply-faced adolescent who, separated from his friends, ends up spending most of his time with his older sister Jessie (Lara Belmont, also making her acting debut). Mum and Dad -- they are referred to in no other way -- seem like typical devoted parents. Dad (Ray Winstone) evinces real interest in his kids' welfare. Mum, a genial, earthy type, is awaiting the arrival of her third child.

But outward signs can be deceiving. One day Tom witnesses a disturbing sight through the window -- his father abusing his sister. He confronts his sister, who denies that anything untoward has happened between herself and her father. As Tom witnesses further abuse, he becomes more sullen and depressed. He continually presses his sister to put a halt to the activities, threatening to expose what is going on. Jessie finally lets on to the terrible toll her father's monstrous actions have taken on her.

Revealing too much of a film's plot in a review isn't fair, but in this case the subject matter is so horrifying, and its presentation onscreen so straightforward, that prospective viewers should be alerted. This is not a film for the weak at heart. Admirers of the picture will label it courageous and powerful, and perhaps it is. Certainly it is unsettling. That it is so well acted, especially by Belmont and Winstone, makes it even more difficult to watch.

The movie unfolds with the gravity of Greek drama. Interestingly, Roth and his cinematographer, Seamus McGarvey, decided against a gritty documentary look and feel and opted instead for physical expansiveness. The result is a bleak, beautiful film.

If the movie has a message, it is that even the most benign exterior can hide a terrible truth. Tom and Jessie's family exhibits no discernible signs of dysfunction. "I've played wife beaters before, but nothing prepared me for the feeling of playing a child abuser," says Winstone. "It made me question how far I want to go as an actor." Viewers should ask themselves how far they wish to go before entering The War Zone's harrowing territory.

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