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The war film has always been a beast with two faces, one for or against the cause, many depicting the horrors of what might arguably be the worse and best of what it means to be human. There is hardly a conflict that hasn’t seen action on film, with many coming to define the era with political and social commentary behind the tragic and heroic stories of those in conflict. Recently, it is the Middle East and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have earned the rounds, and many, like a generation before who came home from Vietnam, explore the psychological effects of time in combat.
Sand Castle is the latest, a film produced for Netflix, and it doesn’t mince words so to speak in delivering its message about what war does to those in the thick of it, and while much of the movie sticks tired and true to the standards–a trapping of the genre–from character building at the base to convoys of armored vehicles heading to the fight to street battles on the run, it is done with competency and conviction.
In 2003, Matt Ocre (Nicholas Hoult) is sent to Iraq as a machine gunner and quickly realizes he’s not built for the chaos, violence, and constant fear of death. Having signed up in July of 2001, a few months before everything changed, we find him now at the start of the story purposefully slamming his hand in a truck door, injuring himself in hopes of delaying or permanently suspending his deployment to battle. Three months later, he has proven himself more worthy and he joins a small platoon led by Sergeant Baker (Logan Marshall-Green) to head to the city of Baqubah to repair a damaged water system, though the city and the surrounding area is a hotbed of enemy activity. Working with Captain Syverson (an almost unrecognizable Henry Cavill) already in the village, the men deal with angry local officials and deadly battles against aggressive forces, leaving Ocre to learn much about himself and the hopelessness of their mission.
Directed by Fernando Coimbra, Sand Castle is based on the experiences of soldier-turned-writer Chris Roessner who served as a machine gunner in Iraq. It is a well-written journey that attempts to encapsulate the larger message of the futility of war through the smaller engagements of a single soldier and the circle of those he comes to affect and be affected by. Treading reliably upon familiar ground, it manages to carve out its own stake in the genre by sticking to the personalities rather than the battles, giving Ocre the brunt of the film’s emotional weight as he forges relationships with both soldiers and citizens.
Hoult is well-cast and does some of his best work yet, even if his arc is expected, finding level ground in an admittedly difficult-to-sell performance as a man adamantly against war but bound by his duty to carry a gun. Finding small rewards in his work, and connecting with a people in need of genuine help, he faces great terrors in the shadow of gruesome and unexpected death. Coimbra maintains an almost unbearable level of tension throughout, toying with our own expectations, ones built from decades of war movies, and balances that with moments of good humor and horrific gunfights, all of which feels authentic.
Sand Castle is an earnest if flawed film, one far more interested in the personal trauma of war rather than the battlefield carnage, even as it dabbles in a few clutching skirmishes. Never glorified or wrung for contrived sentimentality, there is a designed uncomfortableness about it that lingers like the threat of the unknown over every hill and dune in the story. Here is where Sand Castle works best, striking at the damage it all has, especially for those who must carry it back home.
Movie description: Sand Castle is a 2017 drama about a squad of soldiers during the Iraqi occupation assigned to protect a small village.
Director(s): Fernando Coimbra
Actor(s): Henry Cavill, Nicholas Hoult, Glen Powell
Genre: War, Drama