Timely art about the Iraq War seems so crucial to a sense of

cultural equilibrium, and Redacted is at some levels such an impressive reboot

of Brian De Palma’s career, that part of me wants to figure out reasons to

shower it with praise. Unfortunately, while Redacted, a verité-style drama

about a group of American soldiers manning a checkpoint in Iraq, is many

things, it’s dramatically inert. It’s inspired, De Palma says, by a real event

involving the rape of a 14-year-old girl and the slaughter of her and her

family. Maybe it’s no wonder that, confronting this kind of horror, De Palma

founders, scrambling not just to capture that kind of atrocity in his camera

viewfinder, but to do it in a way that makes any kind of sense.

De Palma has built a prestigious career that owes in large

part to what sometimes seems like an almost facile approach to atrocity. I’m

thinking of that brutal, horrifying (and on some level hilarious) murder

sequence in Body Double, but

there’s so much artfully executed atrocity in the De Palma filmography. Take

your pick. (I keep remembering a piece Harlan Ellison wrote describing a

screening during which he stood up and shouted something like, “I should have

known! Another sick De Palma movie!” as he made his way to the exit.) Don’t get

me wrong — I think De Palma’s best work is genius. It’s all well and good to

compose a suspenseful, aesthetically and sexually provocative murder sequence when

the impetus is fiction. But when the catalyst for that dark vision is recent

history — or, more properly, current events — how does an artist maintain the

same level of brio?

De Palma can’t. The rape sequence in Redacted is appalling

and unpleasant, of course. It’s also telegraphed far enough in advance that it

won’t catch anyone off guard, and De Palma refrains from juicing it up. It’s

interesting in the auteurist sense because De Palma has historically been so

unkind to so many of his characters, but what he does here is so different, and

so restrained — it’s like a composer who excels at crazy, Wagnerian opera suddenly

retreating into humble chamber music. De Palma, the master of the shameless

gotcha!, is suddenly dedicated to playing fair. And the soldiers in Redacted who

videotape a rape are doing what De Palma has so often been accused of — exploiting a

woman for (visual) pleasure. Does Redacted function as autocritique?

Redacted could be as powerful as it is punishing if De Palma

found a mode that he could excel in from start to finish. But he’s working well outside of his comfort zone. The film has

intriguing passages, including a faux French-language documentary about the

occupying American soldiers that’s inserted without explanation into the

narrative and a startlingly immediate look at what life might be like on the

job at one of those roadblock checkpoints we read so much about in the papers. I also liked

his incorporation of Internet-style video, including a surprisingly convincing

video-blog rant and a grisly beheading. (Never having watched a beheading video

to the end, I can only guess that De Palma’s team mimicked one effectively.)

But the footage of bull sessions and smack-talk between the soldiers has a

drama-class feel that undermines more than it convinces, and while it’s easy enough to

tell what De Palma’s going for intellectually and emotionally, it’s hard to say that I ever felt any of it in my gut.

It all culminates in a collection of images of real war

atrocities at the very end of the film. (The tactic may have been borrowed from

Dogville.) They have been a source of controversy because they have actually

been redacted — the faces of the people depicted are partly obscured — against

De Palma’s wishes, ostensibly because of fears of legal action by the families

of those pictured. (It seems like an unlikely scenario, but who knows?

Lawyers.) Before seeing the film I imagined that would be a minor issue, but it

actually has a dramatic effect — the black bars over the eyes serve to further

dehumanize the people in the photos, as if they’re the sum of their sadly

decimated body parts, only worth depicting for a cinema audience inasmuch as

they’ve been maimed. The final photograph, representing the soldiers’ victim,

thus provides the film’s only true emotional jolt — after seeing so many black

holes in place of suffering human faces, mere eye contact is devastating. C

Directed by Brian De Palma
Edited by Bill Pankow
Cinematography by Jonathan Cliff
Production Design by Phillip Barker

Screened 10/29/07 at Dolby 24, New York, NY
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 (?)

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