Another unsparing, bleakly conceived tale of the sexual abuse of a minor, The War Zone is this year's answer to Happiness. However emotionally appalling and severe, the directorial debut of Tim Roth counters its despair with quiet beauty and takes brave insights into a dysfunctional family.

A list could be compiled in no time of war films that are honest, humbling and morally excoriating while also dramatically involving. Aldrich's Attack!, Wajda's Kanal, Kubrick's Paths of Glory and Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain all imply the nearly comic absurdity of combat and military strategy, while descending into the gritty realm of the foot soldier to give a chastening and palpable message to the viewer. The most infuriating and disconcerting war films, on the other hand, refuse to define war, delineate where combat geographically ends or mark off who the participants are. If films like Jancso's The Red and the White, Bergman's Shame, and Coppola's Apocalypse Now are unsettling, it's because they resist so many presumptions about what makes up a military conflict, opening up, instead of limiting, the encounters and terrain that might be considered part of warfare. This kind of movie doesn't just indict, but questions the basic mentality of generals-which is to construct boundaries, for recognizing combatants from civilians and the land under siege. Instead of proposing borders and neat categories, these films discover antagonisms in unexpected places and explore their layers of meanings, even if the results take us away from a common-sense notion of war.

The War Zone, directed by actor-turned-filmmaker Tim Roth and adapted by Alexander Stuart from his own novel, holds surprising parallels to these less traditional films that study conflict. Roth's work isn't a film with big battles, but part of the point of the title is to move beyond a routine description of the subject matter. It covers a war of spirits, if not a war per se. The film looks at a family of four and a newborn, which includes a father who traps his grown daughter in a sexual relationship. Like the more broadly conceived war films, The War Zone doesn't settle on examining a customary range of events. Instead of describing the central problem as the daughter's molestation-what a topic-of-the-week incest movie would do-the film widens its focus to the balance of power within the entire family. Rather than admit only physical events, moreover, the film freely mixes everyday reality with the hidden desires and fears that course among the family members, to uncover what makes this unit tick. Significantly, too, the film repudiates the mindset of its nominal leader. Its open-ended structure is at odds with the father who would control the knowledge of his wife and teenage son, just as the alternative, more flexible war films differ in principle from the military mind.

Similar to Jancso, Bergman and Coppola, Roth creates a shifting, unbounded territory for staging his drama. As The War Zone opens, during a slate-gray winter in the resort town of Devon, on the west coast of England, it's probable that 17-year-old Jessie (Lara Belmont) has been sexually molested by her father (Ray Winstone) for a long time. But the film never answers how long the clandestine abuse has gone on, which is typical of its demand that we creatively but also sensitively fit together information. The War Zone places the individuals' fantasies, especially the son's, right alongside ostensible facts. In the eyes of 15-year-old Tom (Freddie Cunliffe), his dependable father gradually takes on the suggestion of a monster, his sweet mother (Tilda Swinton) begins to appear foolish, and his level-headed sister starts to look like a harlot. Roth trusts us to trust Tom's judgment and perception, but also enjoins us to cast a critical eye on this overwhelmed adolescent. Finally, juggling what each displays and conceals, we have to make a judgment what to believe.

The War Zone is as shocking for what it holds back-emotional display, easy identification with the victim, readily certifiable facts, a tightly framed subject-as what it puts on screen-unblushing, nude encounters between kin that are probably, but not positively, in the boy's sexually budding imagination. (The nudity in Jancso's films is likewise frank, excessive and hallucinatory.) In this family-not any different from thousands in which abuse takes place-one can't absolutely know the limit of perversity. The one, unambiguous moment of Jessie's subjugation is so pitiless and stark that it teeters on the unbearable (be warned). Roth's visual sense, however, wisely counterpoints all of the emotional disintegration. The composure of his long takes, and quiet beauty of his still shots, help us to contemplate a noble resolution for these people. Even if that is only wishful thinking, it is something to hold onto, amidst the twisted longing and rampant manipulation.

--Peter Henne