’71 is the first great film of 2015

Yann Demange’s debut feature, set against the backdrop of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, is engrossing from beginning to end.

'71 (640x360)
Jack O’Connell in ’71
There have been lots of films about Northern Ireland and the Troubles, but they all tend to be fairly solemn, Oscar-baiting affairs starring either Daniel Day-Lewis or Liam Neeson. The wound is still pretty fresh, granted, but it’s led to a lot of repetitive sameness from the middlebrow crowd, which makes Yann Demange’s debut feature ’71 doubly impressive.

It’s a lean historical thriller that doesn’t shy away from being viscerally exciting and intense. In less capable hands, ’71 could have been a tone-deaf disaster, but instead it’s a film that’s as taut and intense as the work of Walter Hill in his prime (particularly The Warriors and Southern Comfort).

When the already perilous situation reaches a fever pitch in 1971 Belfast, the army is forced to pull a platoon of new recruits from training and send them on a peacekeeping mission in the war-torn streets. The lieutenant miscalculates the anger of the civilians, and the underarmed, underprotected group is soon forced back to the barracks, accidentally leaving behind young Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), who’s too busy getting the shit kicked out of him to hop back into the jeep. Gary is left to fend for himself in a world where no one thinks particularly highly of soldiers and where his fellow countrymen are in no particular hurry to go out and find him.

A few months ago, I mentioned in my review of Fury that that film’s hallucinatory, almost horror-like final act was easily the film’s strongest suit. It made war seem like a surreal nightmare rather than the ooh-rah videogame Fury spent most of its time being. It seems like my prayers have been answered with ’71. It’s almost unbearably intense from the get-go: its streets are shrouded in smoke filtered through the amber glow of streetlights, it’s impossible to tell who’s friend or foe and Demange shoots action in panicked shakycam that mirrors the unbridled chaos it depicts. Character relationships are sometimes confusing (apparently a very specific white-guy-with-droopy-stache look was immensely popular in Belfast at the time), but never more to us than they are to Gary, who gets progressively more panicked and beaten up as the film progresses.

O’Connell’s been touted as the Next Great British actor (someone has to be, since Hollywood’s chucking them into franchises as fast as Britain can pump ‘em out) and it’s not hard to see why — while this might be his least showy performance this year, the role requires that he do a lot with fairly little. Gary doesn’t get to talk much or give grandstanding speeches because shit’s always flying off the handle and he’s rarely prepared for it. O’Connell manages to be relatable under the blood, sweat and grime that he spends the majority of the film covered in.

I have a soft spot for any movie centered entirely around people trying to get into or out of somewhere (though it does not match my embarrassing soft spot for body-switching movies) and ’71 really pushes all of those buttons for me. It’s tightly wound, intermittently brutal and slightly otherworldly in a way that too few action films or thrillers (it’s a little of both and a lot of neither) are willing to do. Never quite content to settle in a specific genre rut or let the viewer get too comfortable, it’s the first great film of 2015.
‘71 opens at Cineplex Forum Cinema (2313 Ste-Catherine W.) today, Friday, March 13. Watch the trailer here: