Like claustrophobic survival movies “Devil” and “Buried,” the tense new film from “The Bourne Identity” director Doug Liman uses limited locations and characters to tell the story. “The Wall” is a back-to-basics thriller with just three actors, one is never seen, one barely moves while the third carries the day.
Set in 2007 Iraq, Sergeant Allen Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Staff Sergeant Shane Matthews (John Cena) are soldiers on a desert stakeout. Eight dead soldiers litter the area. Their job is to determine cause of death—was it local militia or a highly trained sniper. Twenty hours in they taunt fate, exposing themselves. Shots ring out leaving Matthews, wounded, laying in the open, Isaac nursing a leg wound behind a small brick wall. Pinned down by an enemy sniper, hours pass as Isaac, dehydrated and lightheaded, weighs his options. On the other end of his crackling radio receiver is Juba (voice of Laith Nakli), a poetry spouting Sunni sniper with deadly aim and a way with getting under Isaac’s skin.
“The Wall” is a movie that aims to get into the psyche of soldiers and how men of war deal with loss but for most of its running time is a symphony of misery as Issac grunts, howls and administers some grim self surgery. There are many compelling moments, mostly early on before the first time the thought, “How can this possibly stretch to ninety minutes?” passes through your head. Once it becomes a back and forth between the two men it loses some momentum. What could have been a sly way of discussing the merits, or lack thereof, of the Iraq war effort is, instead, a deep-as-a-lunch-tray look at the psychology of war.
Isaac is a guilt-ridden warrior, unable to return home because of the crushing remorse. Juba, based on a legendary Sunni sniper with at least seventy-five confirmed kills, is a caricature, a snarling serial killer with no real political agenda. Instead he plays cat-and-mouse, drawing the young soldier in—“I just want to have a conversation with you Isaac,” he coos.—before taunting him with over-the-top rhetoric like, “When this is over your skin will be cut from your face; your lying tongue cut from your mouth.”
It can be colourful and powerful but Taylor-Johnson, who was low-key effective in “Nocturnal Animals,” dials it up to eleven here, blowing snot and spit across the screen with every utterance.
“The Wall” is an interesting experiment. It’s a chance for Liman to return to the small-scale filmmaking that made his name—movies like “Swingers” and “Go”—but it feels like it may have been better off as an hour long character study rather than a full blown feature film.