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‘Casualties of War’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 18, 1989


Brian De Palma
Michael J. Fox;
Sean Penn;
Don Harvey;
John C. Reilly
Under 17 restricted

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Even at their most disturbing, Brian De Palma's films have always seemed like brilliant abstractions, sinister theorems from a bloody virtuoso. But "Casualties of War," the director's rigorous, unflinching, masterly new film, is something else altogether. It is a film of great emotional power and great seriousness in which all of the filmmaker's talents and interests are in balance. It is a breakthrough work, a signal of an artist's blossoming maturity, and one of the most punishing, morally complex movies about men at war ever made.

"Casualties of War" takes place out in the world, not up in its creator's head. It's no less a consciously created work than his previous films, and no less spectacular stylistically, but there is a deeper involvement in his subject here, a new respect for his material. The sly theatricality has given way to a vivid realism. There is blood and violence, as there always is in a De Palma film, but when blood spills here, it is at body temperature, fresh from living, suffering people.

What De Palma gives us, essentially, is the anatomy of an atrocity. He shows us in detail the unraveling of the moral fabric, how the descent into barbarism is a journey of steps. The film's script was written by the playwright David Rabe, but its origins are in an actual incident, reported first in 1969 in the New Yorker by Daniel Lang, in which a five-soldier squad on a long-range reconnaissance mission kidnapped a South Vietnamese girl and took her miles away from her village, where four of the five men raped, brutalized and eventually murdered her.

In the film the participants are heartland-bred American boys whose most remarkable quality is their averageness. Their leader is a sergeant named Meserve (Sean Penn), a short-timer who wants simply to live through the last few weeks of his stint and head back to the world. Chewing up his words in a thick Jersey accent, Meserve is tough in the way that comic-book soldiers are tough; he's all cigar butts and whorehouse bluster. In the field, though, he knows what's what, and the other men look up to him as a model of survival. They hang on his every word, even imitate his bantam strut, because they believe their lives depend on it.

The soldier with the most to learn is a fresh-faced kid named Eriksson (Michael J. Fox), who's been in the jungle for only three weeks and still can't quite get it into his head that he's signed up for a war and not a Boy Scout Camporee. Early on, this bland kid's sunny naivete provides us with a couple of endearing comic moments, especially when he risks taking a potentially lethal gift from a villager rather than act "rude." And in another scene, when he's helping an old man plow a rice paddy, his openness seems almost gallant, and we want to accept his vision of the world -- even the world at war -- as benign and forgiving.

We know from past De Palma films, though, that moments of peace are followed inevitably by violence. This eruption, in which Brown (Erik King), the squad's radio man, is cut off in midsentence by a sniper, may be the most devastating sequence De Palma has ever filmed. He gets something here that has never been captured before: that horrible instant at which time itself seems to explode from the pressure of some calamity and, simultaneously, somewhere in the deep center of the chaos, an almost surreal quiet prevails.

Like Meserve, Brown had only a short time left to serve, and his death seeps into the atmosphere like a poison. In the shower, the GIs talk about how much they hate the Vietnamese, who they feel have betrayed them in return for their help. Of all the men, Meserve is the most affected, and when his leave is canceled because "Charlie" is in town visiting the whores that are, by rights, supposed to be his, something in him snaps.

At first, when he outlines his plan to obtain "a little portable R&R," the other members of the squad -- except for Clark (Don Harvey), the sadist -- don't know how to react. But before dawn they have reached their destination, and Meserve and Clark have snatched their victim, Oahn (Thuy Thu Le), from her sleep and carried her off to the hysterical screams of her family. As they leave, the girl's mother runs after them and tries to hand a scarf to her daughter -- a futile, illogical gesture that makes the whole scene unbearably believable.

Every move that De Palma makes here carries moral weight, right down to his choice of lens. Watching the movie, you feel that every frame is crucial. Perhaps only a director who is used to taking chances and used to controversy could film the scene in which Meserve, Clark, the dimwitted Hatcher (John C. Reilly) and the weak-willed Diaz (John Leguizamo) take turns with Oahn in the hut. There is nothing explicit or garish in the way De Palma has captured the horror of what is being done, but at the same time he doesn't turn away, and the tastefulness he shows in pulling his camera back, so that we see it from the point of view of Eriksson, the sole dissenter, makes the sequence all the more painful.

Fox is marvelous throughout the film, but especially here, when he is forced to stand his ground. By stages, we see the transformations in this optimistic kid; we watch him close down emotionally and grow disillusioned. Fox makes Eriksson's struggle to hold onto himself palpable; he makes us feel that his soul is caving in. At the opposite moral pole, Sean Penn's Meserve is just as tormented, perhaps even more so for having completely regressed. Meserve isn't a likable character, but as Penn plays him we do have empathy for him. There are problems, though: Striving for big effects, Penn plays him too boldly. Where the other actors are restrained and forceful (especially Erik King as Brown), Penn at times seems mannered and cartoonish. He gives more where less would have been ideal.

On one level, De Palma's films have always been about complicity; in his pictures, everyone is implicated, no one is innocent, least of all the audience. In this sense, Eriksson acts as our surrogate, and he is not let off the hook simply by not participating. His horror is not enough, and neither is his determination to bring the incident to light. To demonstrate the burden of this memory, the film is presented as Eriksson's reverie as he sits on the BART train in San Francisco, haunted by the incident and going over the details, again and again, torturing himself for not knowing what action to take. And to cleanse him of his guilt, the filmmakers have provided a phony resolution, one set to the swelling of an angel chorus. The moment doesn't work, but it doesn't really matter. It -- and one atrocious speech by Fox at the center of the film -- are the only faltering steps in a movie that refuses to make facile choices. "Casualties of War" is the kind of culminating work that brings the rest of an artist's career into razor-sharp focus. De Palma has created a movie that is both intensely personal and at the same time transcends the limitations of the personal. It is great in the ways that the best De Palma films have been great, but with something more -- something like soul.

"Casualties of War" is rated R and contains violence, strong language and sexually explicit material.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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