'Full Contact': TIFF Review
'Beau Travail' actor Gregoire Colin plays a drone pilot in the Nevada desert in this psychological drama from Dutch auteur David Verbeek.
A French drone pilot in Nevada starts to lose his grip on reality after he is ordered to bomb what later turns out to be a civilian target in Full Contact, the latest film from Dutch director David Verbeek (R U There?). Moving from the physical world into what seems to be the troubled, PTSD-scarred psyche of the pilot, this is a more imaginative and psychology-driven art house item than Andrew Nicchol’s more straightforward Good Kill, in which Ethan Hawke starred as, well, a drone pilot in Nevada. Part of the Platform competition at Toronto, this film is too niche to do much business theatrically but should still, seen its topicality and the presence of French Beau Travail actor Gregoire Colin in the lead, become Verbeek’s most widely seen film to date.
Amsterdam-born Verbeek, who has been based in Asia for most of his career, has always had an interest in how people are becoming increasingly disconnected from reality. In his 2010 Cannes Un Certain Regard title R U There?, a Dutch gamer and a local mystery lady in Taiwan connect in Second Life more than in real life, while in his Club Zeus from 2011, host boys at a club offering comfort to rich, too-busy-to-commit women in Shanghai find it hard to distinguish between real and fake emotions. Though this story's not set in the Far East, it's easy to understand Verbeek’s fascination for drone strikes and pilots, with their immense geographical distance between the target, on the one hand, and the man aiming and killing using only a screen and a joystick, on the other. There probably isn’t a more perfect contemporary metaphor for being disconnected from reality and especially a reality you directly influence.
Full Contact is made up of roughly three sections, beginning with what one assumes is real life: Ivan (Colin) is a French drone pilot working for the U.S. army (how he ended up there is never explained). He lives in a spotlessly clean white condo and dresses in black when he’s not in uniform. Everything in his life is too square and tidy, right down to his workspace, an air-conditioned container in the Nevada desert from which he operates drones over countries such as Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In the border area between the latter two stands a building that Ivan’s superiors believe is hiding a high-ranking terrorist suspect. He’s ordered to completely destroy the structure, even though he has warned them he’s seen a small boy there. Not much later, the already stern-looking pilot finds out via CNN that his actions in that Nevada container laid waste to an entire school.
At night, Ivan seeks external stimuli that might remind him he’s still alive, such as a strip club where Cindy (Lizzie Brochere) works as a dancer. But Ivan’s moves on her are awkward and almost mechanical and it’s a surprise to see Cindy fall for Ivan’s (also surprising) suggestion he’s impotent. Indeed, she discovers he’s anything but in a scene of rough and compulsive sex that suggests that even though Ivan’s downstairs equipment seems to be working fine, perhaps he wasn’t technically lying since he seems emotionally incapacitated. Even during sex, the only emotional response he’s looking for is something that would come from within himself.
The search for this response is what informs parts two and three. In the second segment, which kicks off some 35 minutes in, Ivan wakes up naked and alone in a rocky seaside landscape where he has to try and survive on his own. After the viewers’ initial shock — we’re definitely not in Nevada anymore but where is this? — it becomes clear the film has moved into Ivan’s (mostly) barren subconscious. His wordless but affecting interactions with a stray dog suggest he’s still capable of human emotions (shades of Robinson Crusoe), while his discovery and then confrontation with a group of Middle Eastern-looking men allows him to come face-to-face with those he killed by pushing just one button thousands of miles away.
This wordless midsection, shot by cinematographer Frank van den Eeden in colors that seem to have been washed out by the bright sunlight before surrendering to the deep shadows of dusk, functions as Full Contact’s litmus test. More mainstream audiences are likely to abandon ship here, as hardcore art house enthusiasts will use the material to try and dig deeper into Ivan’s subconscious. Part three initially seems to suggest a return to normality, with Ivan back in France, where he’s found work as a baggage handler. But then he meets a colleague who looks just like Cindy (also played by Brochere), though she’s French and not American. Are we still inside Ivan’s mind? Is he trying to make up for having hooked up with a stripper for the wrong reasons by recasting her as a single mother who is approachable and respectably employed?
Verbeek, who also wrote the screenplay, is intermittently too literal, such as when a mosquito bites Ivan just before he launches a drone attack, or when the atheist pilot goes into a confessional to explain he doesn’t need absolution but feels the need to "be reborn." But mostly, the film is suggestive without over-explaining what it all means. Especially Ivan’s obsession with violence, with him turning to boxing in part three, is fascinating, as if the only way he can atone for his sins is by searching for exactly what drones have taken out of warfare: bodily contact and being physically bruised and battered. It can’t be a coincidence that at his boxing gym in France, his trainer (Slimane Dazi) and opponents are all Arabic speaking. (Like the Frenchman’s presence in Nevada, it’s probably something that needs to be accepted at face value, even if technically Pakistanis and Afghans aren’t Arabic speakers.)
The lean but sinewy Colin is a steely and intensely physical presence here who makes for a believable soldier, even if his delivery of the English-language dialogue is at times too mannered. Brochere (American Horror Story: Asylum) gets to play two somewhat predictably warm-hearted roles that might be connected. In the strip-club scenes in Nevada, her work is just as physical as Colin’s in France, just one of the ways in which Verbeek creates fascinating subterranean connections between the characters in the different locales and timelines. David Boulter’s brooding and minimalist score functions as the necessary glue between editor Sander Vos’ otherwise loosely assembled scenes without sacrificing the film's aura of mystery.
Production companies: ARP, TF1 Films Production
Production companies: Lemming Film, Nukleus Film, Wild At Art
Cast: Gregoire Colin, Lizzie Brochere, Slimane Dazi
Writer-Director: David Verbeek
Producers: Leontine Petit, Joost de Vries, Sinisa Juricic, Eva Eissenloeffel
Executive producer: Clea de Koning, Elsemijn Teulings
Director of photography: Frank van den Eeden
Production designer: Mario Ivezic
Costume designer: Zorana Meic
Editor: Sander Vos
Music: David Boulter
Sales: Bac Films
No rating, 105 minutes