War Story: Sundance Review

"War Story"
A compelling, beautifully filmed character study of a war zone photographer in personal turmoil.

Catherine Keener stars in director Mark Jackson's second feature film.

The generically titled War Story is a rigorous and enigmatic behavioral study of a professional photographer traumatized by what she's recently experienced in a combat zone. Fronted by an outstanding performance from Catherine Keener, who is onscreen, often by herself, at almost every moment, this challenging but not difficult second feature from Mark Jackson parcels out its information in gradual increments, forcing the viewer to infer rather simply receive most narrative information. The result is a work that will appeal only to discerning art house and indie-inclined audiences but, on the basis of Keener's presence alone, will gain more visibility than did the director's debut, Without, in 2011.

The middle installment of an announced trilogy, War Story resembles its predecessor (which world premiered at Slamdance) in its focus upon a solitary woman enduring great psychological stress in trying and very physicalized circumstances. Without was set on an island in Washington State, whereas the new film takes place in what is gradually revealed to be Sicily, specifically the central town of Caltanissetta.

But hard information about Lee (Keener)--where she is, where she's just come from and what's happened to make her so upset--only emerges gradually and in what some will find a self-consciously calculated withholding manner. Distraught and deigning to speak no Italian, she arrives at the small, agreeable hotel, insists upon having her old room back, asks for one cigarette and holes up, refusing to answer the phone and desperate for total isolation.

Lee has her eccentric habits: She sleeps wrapped in a big blanket rather than in bed, drinks water by cupping her hand under the faucet rather than using a glass, rearranges the furniture in the room, insists that maids stay out and thinks nothing of raiding the hotel kitchen for food and wine.

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A caller who does get through insists that she get on the next plane so she can attend the memorial service for someone named Mark, but one can only guess as to who he was; probably a close professional colleague, but maybe more. She remains cooped up for a long time, examining the war photographs she's recently taken in some Arab land, until she finally ventures out, is hustled by a Tunisian rug seller and notices a beautiful young Libyan women she thinks she recently photographed at the scene of a bloody incident. She also happens upon a fenced detention center filled with Muslims of whom she surreptitiously takes a few pictures, only to have the local authorities force her to delete them.

As distressed as is the American woman, but undoubtedly with greater justification, the Libyan, Hafsia (Hafsia Herzi) wants to get an abortion, something the Sicilian doctors don't care to provide, and then get to France. Lee is drawn to the fact that Hafsia has also suffered recent personal loss, which, combined with her automatic compassion for the disenfranchised, helps to pull her out of her own depression and help the young woman. The sentiments are reluctantly accepted but not returned, as Hafsia looks out only for herself and is infuriated by Lee's habit of saying that she “knows” people—Hafsia included—just because she once photographed them.

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War Story has a flat-line narrative in which no single event is either more or less important than any other, and there is no attempt at building up to and accentuating “big” scenes in a dramaturgical manner. With the excellent young cinematographer Reed Morano (Frozen River, Kill Your Darlings), Jackson employs a “following” camera style much of the time, going with Lee wherever she goes, sometimes in quite long takes. It's all beautifully filmed.

Without recourse to her familiar humor and sense of irony, Keener is obliged to dig deep to convey profound inner turmoil, sorrow and uncertainty. During the first long stretch when we know nothing about what's consuming her and her behavior is so erratic, the effect is greatly unsettling. Gradually, her grief is channeled into what she can view as positive action, even if her effectiveness is questionable at best. In fact, the film's conclusion is quite unsatisfying in its lack of clarity as to what we're supposed to believe takes place; Hafsia has clearly made up her mind about something but it's impossible to know what she's decided, leaving the viewer, and presumably Lee, in the lurch, a seemingly unfair gesture considering the sincere investment made in connecting the dots up to then.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (NEXT)
Production: Kreate Films, Caney Fork Films, Tilted Windmill Productions
Cast: Catherine Keener, Hafsia Herzi, Vincenzo Amato, Donatella Finocchiaro, Guido Caprino, Ben Kingsley
Director: Mark Jackson
Screenwriters: Mark Jackson, Kristin Gore
Producers: Kristin Gore, Shona Tuckman, Catherine Keener, Matt Ratner
Executive producers: Brad Tuckman, Scott Macaulay
Director of photography: Reed Morano
Production designer: Jorge Barba
Costume designers: Liz Lash, Angelique Paull
Editor: Kate Abernathy
Music: Dave Eggar, Chuck Palmer, Amy Lee
No rating; 90 minutes