With family dysfunction, emotional brutality and misery-guts atmosphere the order of the day, Tim Roths directorial debut was never going to escape comparisons with mate Gary Oldmans Nil By Mouth. However, while certainly as grim and introspective, The War Zone is far less personal, being based on Alexander Stuarts award-winning novel set in a desolate, ugly Devon of rainswept moors, isolated farmhouses and deep-seated family shenanigans.
Ostensibly, you get a virtually catatonic teenager Tom (Cuncliffe) who becomes aware that the relationship between his fractious pop (Winstone) and edgy older sister Jessie (Belmont) has taken on a decidedly dodgy dimension. While he wrestles with his conscience, his unaware mother (Swinton) delivers another baby and his sister begins to come apart at the seams Ñ self-mutilation, fierce denial and enticing her bro into their own quasi-incestuous relationship. And with everything set out, you sit back and wait for the truth to hit the breakfast table.
Both of the kids do excellent work in complex, distressing roles - the movie works best in their shared scenes - and the film evokes an effective seriousness of tone with Roths fitting penchant for deep shadows, sultry landscapes and long, languorous sequences of sparse dialogue and heavy stares. But its all oddly inert and uninvolving, Roth locating strangeness rather than pathos in his forlorn family.
And poor old Ray Winstone is fast turning into a caricature of himself - its now prescribed film lore that any character he plays will inevitably go ape somewhere between the credits. Which automatically denies the film the forbidding ordinary-evil theme at its heart. The result is more distasteful than shocking - what should be provocative is simply depressing.