Wednesday 15 July 2020

Real wild house: "Ghosts of War"

Somewhat surprisingly, Ghosts of War represents Eric Bress's first directorial credit since 2004's The Butterfly Effect, that latter-day trash classic that invited a time-travelling Ashton Kutcher to play Christ and sacrifice himself for the sake of all mankind. (At least in the director's cut, beaming himself back into his mother's womb so as to be aborted; in the appreciably softer theatrical version, the sacrifice involved giving up on his one true love.) The new film presents as an extension of the vigorous, self-aware pulp Bress was trading in at the start of the century: it's a mad generic mash-up that opens in the Nazi-occupied France of 1944 - or, as a screen-filling caption insists, "NAZI-OCCUPIED FRANCE 1944" - and follows a platoon of five young Americans (Brenton Thwaites, Theo Rossi, Kyle Gallner, Alan Ritchson and Skylar Astin) assigned to guard a creepy old chateau that's been abandoned by their retreating foes. Like the neurological condition that triggered the time travel in Bress's earlier film, the chateau proves a puzzle that has to be figured out. What to make of the burn mark on the carpet in the study, the breeze in one of the corridors, strong enough to extinguish cigarettes and candles alike? Similarly, what gives with the doors opening and closing at random, the scratch marks on the floorboards? The grunts enter this well-appointed stronghold thinking it will provide them with a measure of sanctuary from the European battlefield; little do they know that, in a roundabout kinda way, they're actually being driven out of their minds and over the top.

They're not alone about heading in that direction, though the actors find deft variations on the one note they've each been handed to play: Thwaites the picture of the clean-cut boy-next-door, Gallner working skilfully within the limitations of the taciturn sociopath/possible saviour, Astin having only to fish a pair of those especially crushable-looking round period specs from his pocket for us to know he's the bookish one. Still, what's traditionally been the great advantage of the B-movie is that it knows one well-played note often suffices: it differentiates character, while limiting any time-wasting chewing of scenery or other thespian overkill. (Heaven knows the 153-minute Inglourious Basterds could have done with some of that nous.) If anyone's indulging in overkill here, that would be Bress, observed leaning altogether enthusiastically into his 18 certificate from the prologue that does for guest star Billy Zane and sees a tyre iron taken to one Nazi's skull. We're reminded, in such moments, that Bress made his bones as one of the snickering writers-for-hire on the morbidly profitable Final Destination series - and that he looks set on making a career out of coupling that franchise's built-in nastiness to some measure of narrative ingenuity. The mystery of the spooky chateau gets put on hold for almost the duration of the middle act as the soldiers are forced to repel a Nazi counterattack - and if you think Bress is keen to demonstrate any kind of restraint here, you'd be wrong. As Gallner puts it, breaking up some exposition that is the film's least convincing aspect (or the aspect Bress is least interested in): "Evil is what makes the violence so fun."

Ghosts of War retains some smarts to back up that credo; muddled as it threatens to become in places, it's not wholly mindless entertainment. With an admirable economy, Bress does eventually get around to addressing our passing suspicions that these actors are somehow too fresh-faced to convince as battle-hardened grunts, though that explanation is going to be another of those punches not every onlooker will be willing to roll with. Does the film go too far in replaying war crimes for cheap thrills? Probably, though no more so than Tarantino was allowed to get away with. (I accept that the Tarantino defence isn't much of a defence.) Does it match the lingering pulp poetry of the early Nineties film to which it owes an undeniable conceptual debt? Not quite, though it lands a few glancing blows in the vicinity of recent American foreign policy on its way to an oddly haunting conclusion. (Is Bress eyeing up sequels?) Yet this final movement once more demonstrates this writer-director's commitment to crossing lines as decisively as he did when he sent Kutcher to self-abort. The (generally dismissive) critical reaction to The Butterfly Effect hasn't curbed Bress's transgressive instincts, in other words, but exacerbated them: what that generates here is the rare, secretly thrilling sensation of watching a contemporary B-movie that genuinely knows no bounds, that keeps pushing its luck. Let's face facts, the infection rate in the West is so high we're not going to see (nor want to go see) Tenet any time soon - but so long as the cinema, in whatever form it takes, keeps kicking up a few chancy, disreputable pleasures such as this from time to time, we'll be fine.

Ghosts of War will be available to stream from Friday.

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