Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Rated 14A
Two guys, a crumbling wall, a few guns, and enough dust to make you practically taste the grit. That’s about all director Doug Liman needed to make this tense, claustrophobic little war movie.
It’s an odd choice for the director of such outsized action epics as Edge of Tomorrow. The Wall is a taut mix of horror, war, and, surprisingly, serial-killer movie, managing to bust genres even as it slips occasionally into convention. Extra points for avoiding the flag-waving heroics of American Sniper.
The setup is simple. Two American soldiers in Iraq become wounded, and trapped, by an unseen—and apparently rogue—sniper. George H.W. Bush has just announced the end of the Gulf War, but, predictably, somebody didn’t get the memo. Staff Sgt. Shane Matthews (WWE hulk John Cena) is lying unconscious on an open stretch of desert. His spotter, Allan “Ize” Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), is stuck baking behind a flimsy rubble wall, with a leaking water bottle, a glitching radio, and a giant hunk of lead lodged in his mangled leg.
When Ize switches to a working local radio channel, the psychological terror begins: the Iraqi sniper wants to talk to him, and taunt him, from his unseen outpost. While the gunman probes him for details about his life, the soldier tries to figure out how to fight his way out.
Taylor-Johnson, so memorable as a bad guy in Nocturnal Animals, is on his own here, and he mostly rises to the task—a simple kid trying to remember his training amid the terror, with an ingrained good-ol’ boy racism in his exchanges with the “haji”. As for Laith Nakli’s Iraqi, screenwriter Dwain Worrell can’t seem to make up his mind about whether he’s a sensitive war victim or a psychopath: one minute the sniper’s spouting poetry and grieving the loss of a school to bombs, the next he’s talking about gouging out eyeballs and stapling someone’s tongue to his chin.
Still, you get a you-are-there feel for the heat and the dust, thanks to the bleak palette, rendered on anamorphic 16mm film. The near-unbearable tension will remind you of such similarly small-scale nail-biters as Frozen (the one with the chairlift from hell, not the singing snowman) and Open Water.
With its dust and gore, The Wall also draws inevitable comparisons to the equally claustrophobic Kilo Two Bravo. The latter is more compelling because it’s true; gripping as it is, the former has almost as many holes as the decrepit wall Ize cringes behind.
Still, The Wall is probably the only war movie you’ll see this year where the Iraqi soldier is smarter than the Americans.