There was a lot that put me off The Wall (2017). For one, I’m not a big fan of war films – they’re just not my cup of tea. Secondly, despite the fact that wrestlers are apparently good actors now – hello Dave Bautista – I’m biased against wrestlers actually being actors after I came to the conclusion that Dwayne Johnson was basically playing the same role in every film he was in. (Dave, if you’re reading this, this doesn’t apply to you. You are a wonderful actor). Even John Cena who, truth be told, actually played a really good part in the Amy Schumer fronted rom-com Trainwreck (2015), drew my ire – and I can’t actually remember seeing him as a wrestler! And Aaron Taylor-Johnson? He’s not a bad actor, by any means, but he’s just never done anything that really impressed me. And yet, despite all the obstacles that The Wall had to climb, I can happily say that it may have actually become my favourite war film. Ever.
The reason for this is simple. While The Wall is set up like a war film, it’s not one, at least according to the genre conventions. While it may involve soldiers in a military situation, in terms of narrative, The Wall is more like a psychological horror film. That is to say, there are no armies facing off against each other, no heroics, nothing to glamourising the situation which the main characters find themselves in. And that’s important because it gives us an answer to the question of whether it’s possible to have a war film that shows the horrors of war without glamourising it.
Yes, just don’t make it a war film!
So, while that may immediately put some people off from enjoying The Wall, you really shouldn’t because as a horror film The Wall really is engaging. Laith Nakli portrays the enemy sniper with an eery, almost-obviously false humanity. It’s as though he’s playing the role of the enemy sniper as a normal man who is pretending to be a psychopath pretending to be normal man. However, while Nakli provides an excellent threat, it would be wrong to say that he steals the show and to discount Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena. Taylor-Johnson portrays Sergeant Isaac Lewis as a kind of stand in for America’s military as a whole, a veteran who has been at war for so long and done so much that it’s difficult for him to stop and go back to normality. Likewise, although the latter is only in the film for a relatively short time, he manages to keep up with his more experienced co-stars. Indeed, he disappears so completely into the role that I forgot I was watching John Cena.
In terms of directing and cinematography, Doug Liman and Roman Vasyanov keeps the camera close to the action, keeping our attention squarely focussed on Sergeant Lewis and the titular wall. This means that, despite the wide open landscape which the film takes place, the film has an incredibly claustrophobic feeling, as though the whole film takes place in a locked closet. To be honest, Liman’s use of such a sparse set up stands in contrast to much of his career. Having directed such action pieces as The Bourne Identity (2002) and Live, Die, Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow (2014), you would have expected Liman to edge towards the spectacle, but instead he never ventures away from this claustrophobia, and the film is all the better for it. Likewise, the lack of music – whether diagetic or non-diagetic – means that the film relies more on diagetic sound in order to fill out the soundscape. As a result, it has a heightened sense of intimacy and terror, much more so than pretty much any other war film that I’ve seen. If I were to make a comparison, it would be to the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men (2008)
Ultimately, while The Wall may not be a traditional war film, it is all the better because of it. The small cast performs well, and the directorship is done extremely well, and the music (or lack thereof) enhances the film rather than distracts from it. Though I suspect there are those who would have preferred a more traditional take on military combat, for those who are willing to experiment just a little bit will no doubt find something to enjoy in The Wall’s distant yet horrifying spectacle of war.