A lone soldier trapped overnight in a war zone is what director Yann Demange brings us with his feature debut ’71, opening Friday. This particular war zone happens to be 1971 Belfast, a city torn apart by tribal war between Catholics and Protestants, a conflict rather understatedly known as the Troubles. Demange mostly sidesteps the politics of it all in favor of crafting a tense thriller that puts the audience in the crossfire.
The soldier in question is Private Hook (Jack O’Connell), fresh out of training and sent into action. This being a movie and all, he is quickly separated and alone through the incompetence of a commanding officer. Hook’s fight for survival is a Homeric journey through the West Belfast night, complete with murderous IRA, children warriors, and civilians caught up in the struggle. Even the undercover British Intelligence “good guys” can’t be relied upon to do right by our trapped soldier, as their need to play both sides against each other outweigh helping Hook.
Demange does a fantastic job of maintaining tension throughout the entirety of the film, bringing a capable touch rarely seen from a first time director. He immerses the camera into the thick of swirling hellish events, putting the viewer’s boots firmly on the ground with the action unfolding before them. The streets and alleys become a closed-in maze during one well-shot chase, creating a palpable anxiety at what danger may lie around each turn and corridor. Headlights and street lamps pierce the darkness in a look and mood reminiscent of early Carpenter (one can’t help but be reminded of Escape From New York), but Demange mixes in enough frenetic pacing to make his film a visceral experience. For a film with art house appeal, there’s a good portion of gut-punching action.
O’Connell adroitly plays off the director’s sense of urgency, making the viewer easily believe Hook’s helplessness. This trapped soldier isn’t trying to be a hero, he just wants to survive the night. There are no smirks, cool actions, or snappy lines given by O’Connell. In fact, he doesn’t have much dialogue at all. We mostly get this character by reading the emotion on his face as he confronts each ordeal. And while he was featured in the mostly forgettable Unbroken earlier in 2014, O’Connell convincingly makes his mark in ’71. His performance demonstrating the futility of the events surrounding Hook is deftly subtle. His is not a character that somehow becomes superhuman overnight, and his fate is ultimately out of his own hands.
Solid outings by all number of supporting players lend to the effective nature of ’71. Sean Harris (Prometheus) gives off shady menace as a covert British Intelligence officer, while The Railway Man’s Sam Reid plays a Lieutenant wanting to correct the mistake of leaving Hook on his own in danger. Stealing every scene he’s in is newcomer Corey McKinley, who plays a foul-mouthed child that out-toughs the locals.
Overall, ’71 is a finely made piece of cinema with an intense pace. Yann Demange has proven himself a talented filmmaker out of the gate, and set a high bar for future projects.