Wednesday, February 8, 2012

War Zone

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

One of the things we do frequently on Critics at Large is draw readers to good films that may have gone undervalued, or ignored. One such film, Triage, drew the attention of Susan Green in the way these abandoned movies often do. Quite by accident.  

The Wages of Combat: Triage – A Movie About Lingering 


With nothing else of interest on television late one recent night, I decided to check out Triage on the Showtime cable channel. The 2009 drama had premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, but never opened theatrically in the United States despite the clout of Colin Farrell in the lead role. Generally not one of my favorite actors, he plays a seasoned young Irish photojournalist who experiences post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after covering Saddam Hussein’s Kurdistan genocide in 1988. The premise sounded intriguing to a news junkie like me; especially when I discovered that the director was Danis Tanovic, a Bosnian filmmaker whose Oscar-winning No Man’s Land (2001) used black comedy to effectively depict the futility of war.

There is no comic relief in Triage, which probably renders its tragic tale more realistic but less commercial. People witnessing the world’s many barbaric conflicts on television may seek a little pacifist escapism in their entertainment choices or at least opt for make-believe action punctuated by jokey one-liners like “Hasta la vista, baby.” Tanovic adapted his screenplay from a 1999 debut novel by Scott Anderson, a writer all-too-familiar with mayhem after a quarter-century documenting intrigue, corruption and carnage in dangerous places. He based The Hunting Party (2007), starring Richard Gere, on his misadventure with fellow scribe Sebastian Junger: The two got involved in a crazy scheme to capture Radovan Karadzic, the Serbian war criminal, but it all fell apart when they were mistaken for CIA agents.

In Country: Colin Farrell and Jamie Sives 
The fiction in Triage centers on photographers Mark (Farrell) and David (Jamie Sives), best friends who are taking pictures of casualties as the Iraqi Army massacres the out-gunned separatist Kurds. In a remote and poorly equipped field hospital, Dr. Talzani (Branco Djuric, a compelling fighter in No Man’s Land) tends to the wounded, putting differently colored slips of paper on their chests to indicate whether they are likely to survive – hence, the title of the film. He then carries out mercy killings of men otherwise doomed to a slow, agonizing death. These sequences are extremely graphic, yet no doubt not nearly as grim as the consequences of genuine battles.

Everyone suspects a major attack is imminent, something Mark wants to hang around for so he can take even more newsworthy shots. David, whose wife Diane (Kelly Reilly) is eight-months pregnant back in Ireland, feels desperate to get the hell out of the Middle East right away. Whatever adrenaline fuels this line of work has been depleted in him; his desire now is to pursue a less perilous occupation, like fashion photography. With no means of transportation, he leaves on foot.

But, in the next scene, Mark wakes up on a cot with grave head injuries from shrapnel in an artillery explosion, the specifics of which remain unclear. Under the care of Talzani, luckily he’s not been given the dreaded blue paper that signals imminent euthanasia. They discuss the proverbial Sophie’s choice facing this physician on a daily basis. Djuric’s gravitas is well-suited to portraying a man of constant sorrow.
Coming Home: Colin Farrell and Paz Vega in “Triage”
Sorrow follows Mark back to Dublin, where his legs begin to give way. Although told it’s psychosomatic, he won’t open up to his girlfriend Elena (Paz Vega) and barely talks with Diane, other than to suggest David’s probably due to arrive home any day. Farrell’s performance is exquisite as this complex, conflicted character with shell-shock amnesia. No wonder he championed the project and serves as one of the executive producers. On Showtime, it screened just before The Hurt Locker, another gut-wrencher that examines the addiction to extreme risk and the lost souls that find meaning only in the nervous-system high brought on by violence.

The legendary Christopher Lee in Triage
Two wonderful surprises in Triage: Juliet Stevenson shows up as Mark’s agent, thrilled by the gruesome images he’s taken. She knows they will sell because the public hunger for horror is limitless. Octogenarian Christopher Lee – the venerable vampire in eight Dracula movies from 1958 to 1976 – appears as Elena’s grandfather, Joaquin. Although estranged from him in the belief he’s a fascist, Elena seeks his help. Joaquin is, in fact, a psychiatrist who developed a sort of truth-and-reconciliation “purification” treatment for people that committed crimes against humanity at the behest of Generalissimo Francisco Franco during and after the Spanish Civil War. While psychological damage in both the oppressed and their oppressors is a fascinating topic, it isn’t explored extensively enough to avoid becoming a distraction in the context of this film.

Joaquin and Mark engage in a slow, subtle and beautifully acted pas de deux. Their introspective scenes, unfortunately, are then swept away with a rush of improbable situations to wrap up the proceedings in a tidy fashion. Real-world PSTD is much trickier to resolve, if resolution is ever even possible. The human condition does seem rather hopeless in these times. Danis Tanovic must understand this dilemma, given his years on the front-lines chronicling the brutal late 1990s Siege of Sarajevo with a camera. To paraphrase some of the brilliant dialogue he wrote for No Man’s Land: The difference between a pessimist and an optimist is that a pessimist thinks things can't be worse; an optimist knows they can.

originally published on April 9, 2011 in Critics at Large.

 Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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