It’s been the better part of a decade since “Buried,” “Devil,” and “Frozen” (the one about flesh-eating wolves, not the one about princesses) all hit theaters in the same year, and, for a moment there, it almost seemed as though the sub-genre those films share had started to lose its appeal. No such luck. Alas, we are still living in the golden age of single-location thrillers, even if most of them are bronze-level at best. If anything, Doug Liman’s passably entertaining new film suggests that we should brace ourselves for more such contained and claustrophobic exercises in suspense, whether we like them or not.
Arriving in theaters just a few weeks after the similarly scaled “Mine” was buried on VOD, “The Wall” may not be well-structured, but Liman’s latest still serves as an imposing reminder that — as movies get riskier to make and the gulf between blockbusters and micro-budget indies grows wider every weekend — filmmakers and financiers alike can’t be expected to resist the allure of a story format that allows them to get so much bang for their buck. Not when all you need to make a movie is two guys, a gun, and a WWE superstar.
Not that “The Wall” provides an abundance of either. The premise is, naturally, a model of simplicity. The year is 2007, and while President Bush may have declared victory in Iraq, a number of U.S. soldiers have stuck around to help clean up the mess that our army left behind. It’s unclear if the troops were given the option of going home, but Sergeant Allen Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) certainly has his reasons for wanting to stay put and sort through the rubble.
We meet “Eyes” during an endless stakeout, 20 hours after he and his commanding officer, Staff Sergeant Shane Matthews (John Cena), first arrived at a crime scene in the middle of the desert. Baking alive under the hot yellow sun, the two camouflaged men have spent the better part of a day staring down at eight dead bodies and waiting for any signs of life. Were these poor bastards targeted by a deadly professional sniper, or were they bushwhacked by local militants? Is there a serial killer hiding behind the stone wall in the distance, or are these guys totally alone with their fears? Matthews isn’t waiting any longer to find out. “What’s there is there, the rest of that shit is in your head.” Throwing caution to the wind, this extraordinary slice of all-American beefcake wanders into the open. Roughly a minute later, both soldiers are shot to pieces — Matthews is lying unconscious on a fully exposed stretch of sand, while Eyes is hiding behind that wall with one bullet in his knee, another in his antenna, and no hope of figuring out where the enemy might be hiding before he bleeds to death.
As with most movies like it, “The Wall” immediately makes you wonder how it might possibly sustain itself for a full 90 minutes. And, as with most movies like it, “The Wall” makes that happen by stretching its believability to the breaking point (while indulging in a mild degree of body horror along the way). Panicked characters lead to impatient storytelling, and that unfortunate dynamic tends to result in all sorts of contrivances. Here, the biggest head-smacker is the enemy shooter himself, who only grows more absurd after he stops impersonating a U.S. med evac unit over Eyes’ radio. The stilted chatter between the two men nearly proves fatal to a film that would have been far more suspenseful as a silent.
At best, having a disembodied voice on the other side of the receiver allows Eyes to openly interrogate his conscience, Dwain Worrell’s apolitical script assuming an introspective bent as its wounded hero grapples with his guilt. At worst, the decision minimizes any political subtext (don’t hold your breath waiting for “The Wall” to re-litigate the Iraq War) and demonizes the native population. Based on a legendary Sunni sniper, the bad guy here isn’t just someone who’s trying to protect his people, he’s a sinister killing machine who happens to have memorized every word of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.” While “The Wall” provides unusually satisfying rationales for many (but not all) of its most ridiculous details, the damage has been done by the time the film gets around to explaining itself.
Liman, for his part, doesn’t bring the kind of swagger you might expect from someone coming off “The Edge of Tomorrow.” Beyond Hitchcock and Fincher, it isn’t often that such a Hollywood heavy-hitter dips his toe into this strange genre, which is typically reserved for upstart indie filmmakers or horror luminaries who’ve hit upon a clever idea. Liman, on the other hand, is pretty much doing this on his downtime (he’s got another Tom Cruise epic coming later this year), and he’s content to let the story do most of the heavy lifting here. The director’s instincts are a bit too broad to sell the full psychic horror of this scenario, and Taylor-Johnson will never be accused of being able to shoulder a movie by himself, but a super coherent sense of space and a vivid feel for the environment help “The Wall” to remain upright to the end.
Smaller than the sum of its stones, this taut psychological thriller is still sturdy enough, and every bit as compelling as some studio fare 10 times its size. Its scale may be a bit extreme, but — fingers crossed — the film’s pedigree might help convince Hollywood that they can shrink things down without totally forfeiting their spectacle.
“The Wall” opens in theaters on May 12.