Just as one doesn't go to Michael Bay for messages of social responsibility, you don't call on Brian De Palma when looking for a sensitive examination of rape and murder during wartime. As a filmmaker he's a sensationalist at heart, seemingly unable to resist the urge to tart up any given material with comic exaggeration, particularly in the grotty, adolescent sex/violence nexus he's so fond of. Like a dirty-minded Sam Fuller without the journalistic drive to locate some element of truth amidst the pulp trappings, De Palma is all about the gut punch, a tendency that can serve him in good stead when making gangster flicks, less so when trying to make an anti-war statement.
Redacted is De Palma's attempt to revisit the same themes of soldiers brutalizing civilians during wartime that he first broached in 1989's Casualties of War, transplanted from Vietnam to Iraq. Given that Redacted is a more immediate affair, being released in the midst of the Iraq War instead of a safe decade and a half later, De Palma wants to make it a thing of the present. Maybe not ripped from the headlines, but ripped from MySpace. So instead of name actors, we have a clutch of hungry young up-and-comers, with some theatre credits and a few "Law and Order" episodes between them. There's no high-gloss cinematography here—we are instead handed the story as a hi-def-video batch of seemingly found recordings, crudely cobbled together from a soldier's camera and several other sources (security tapes, news footage, etc.) like something that would be found in one of the more disreputable corners of the Internet. Instead of blazing into 2,000 theatres simultaneously, the film will trickle out courtesy of indie distributor Magnolia.
At first glance, these things seem like positive developments. Given that De Palma hasn't managed to put together a competent major studio film in well over a decade, maybe this sort of back-to-basics approach would serve to recharge his creative batteries (which, in the wake of atrocities like The Black Dahlia, Femme Fatale and Snake Eyes, appear to be seriously depleted). And at first, it all pays off. Redacted begins in the hothouse of a war-zone barracks and a nearby Iraqi neighborhood, where a squad of Marines talk smack and patrol in desultory fashion while one of them, Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz, appropriately sleazy), films it all for a documentary he thinks will get him into film school once back in the States. The events that follow won't be any surprise to students of My Lai and Haditha: frustrated soldiers, a fatal ambush, rage turned on civilians, rape, murder of witnesses, coverup.
Salazar's rough-and-ready footage is adolescent in the extreme (complete with cheesy, Editing 101 dissolves and wipes), and so contrasts well with the more polished film segments showing the squad manning a roadblock, supposedly shot by French documentarians, complete with arch narration and overwrought music. There's also news footage gleaned from an Arabic satellite news channel, and handheld film shot by reporters embedded with the squad. Although the amount of material here is strikingly exaggerated (this must be the most filmed unit in the American military), it initially seems as though De Palma is aiming for an ultra-meta narrative, a Rashomon for the media-overload age where we see how the truth is differently filtered through the varying outlets.
But this gambit is quickly abandoned, as the film soon reveals it isn't as interested in the difference of perspective as it is in showing us in detail with extreme close-ups the crime itself and the monsters that the occupation has turned most of these Marines into. Although for the most part the young cast acquits themselves admirably, as the film wears on the hackneyed and pseudo-improv dialogue they're forced to utter divorces the audience from the horror of what they've just witnessed. Just as Sean Penn in Casualties of War was nothing but a blatant psychopath from scene one, in Redacted there's no depth to the pair of soldiers who rape the Iraqi woman and murder her family; they're simply monsters (and, of course, typed as Republican red-staters) who say things like "Waxing hajjis is like stomping cockroaches." There is some potential in watching the rest of the men in the squad succumb to voyeuristic curiosity or sheer cowardice as they fail to stop the crimes they're witnessing, but it comes much too late in the film. In any case, the pretense of authenticity which all the sub-vérité stylings are meant to imply don't lend much credibility to a film that couldn't much be bothered with realism (as The New Yorker's resident Iraq hand George Packer has well illustrated).
Redacted aims to blame us all for the horrors of war, saying in its meta-narrative way that we're all swept up in the same hypocritical web that makes us into passive and voyeuristic hyenas. While it's a fair point, when the director threw a tantrum after Magnolia blacked out the faces of the real Iraqi people who appear in the photo montage that ends the film (an admirable desire to conceal the civilians' identities), it became clear that this film is just one more strand in that same web.