Brian De Palma has always been out to make viewers squirm. Sometimes he's confrontational for a cause, as with early political provocations like "Hi, Mom!" and "Greetings," or the Vietnam drama "Casualties Of War." With other films, like "Body Double," "Carrie" and "The Untouchables," he seems to wallow in illicit sex and stylish violence for his own private reasons—his career-long obsessions with voyeurism and the specificity of individual vision, for instance. Or possibly just for notoriety's sake. His new "fictional documentary" "Redacted" carries baggage from both sides of the De Palma divide: It's peppered with calculated attempts to aggravate and incite, but there's real personal anger at work as well. This time around, De Palma doesn't just want to shock people, he wants to make them mad.
Modeled closely after a real event that occurred near Baghdad in 2006, "Redacted" documents the rape and murder of a 15-year-old Iraqi girl by American soldiers, as pieced together through a variety of simulated media: a soldier's video diary, a French documentary, Army interrogation records, cable-news reports, embedded journalists, Web site videos and more. For a story told via such diverse methods, "Redacted" is surprisingly linear, with few narrative byways: Apart from the French-doc interludes, which dreamily emphasize the heat, the boredom and the soldiers' daily life-or-death decisions, most of the video clips build a horrifyingly simple narrative.
After being informed that their tour of duty in Iraq has been extended yet again, thuggish dullard B.B. Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman) and apparent sociopath Reno Flake (Patrick Carroll) concoct a plan to sneak off base at night to assault a local girl who passes through their military checkpoint daily. The story comes eerily close to De Palma's "Casualties Of War," though "Redacted's" soldiers have even less reason to go after their victim; they offer no justification for their actions, though their constant complaining about "Johnny Jihad" and worse around them implies that their hostility toward their mission, the military and the country they're stuck in has just boiled over. After badgering some fellow soldiers into joining them, they kill the girl's family, set fire to her body and her home and return to base, where traumatized witness Lawyer McCoy (Rob Devaney) tries to bring the event to light.
Obviously, portraying American soldiers as murderous, child-raping, racist thugs would be directly courting controversy in any era, much less in a politically charged environment where even the biggest critics of the Bush administration's Iraq policy have generally been careful to emphasize that they support the troops. De Palma defies the inevitable backlash by inserting spin-doc rhetoric into the characters' mouths: While one military interrogator tries to bully McCoy into saying the rape victim was "an insurgent resisting arrest," Flake defiantly tells another investigator, "You prosecute guys like us, you're just aiding the terrorists." It's impossible to tell whether he's disingenuously parroting a party line, or cynically using a rhetorical weapon that's worked in the past. Either way, he's appropriating the kind of language that might be used against the film, in one of many button-pushing moments deliberately designed to infuriate.
Less anger and more subtlety might have made "Redacted" more effective. Cinematographer Jonathon Cliff does wonders with the film's footage, which looks exactly like it came from the intended mishmash of sources. The constantly changing visuals are a gimmicky distraction, but a welcome one, given the raw subject matter. But De Palma's script is intermittently too blunt and obvious. And while the stiff, broad acting can be justified when the leads are mugging for their friends' videos, it rings hollow when they're being caught unaware on surveillance cameras. De Palma sets out to deconstruct how Americans in Iraq are seen through a variety of eyes, but too often, all the points of view seem to present the exact same story, which makes "Redacted" more a straightforward visual experiment than the more nuanced, multilayered, self-reflective media portrait it sets out to be.
Still, it's an effective experiment and a hackle-raising drama, and it's far better controlled than De Palma's last film, the flailing noir mess "The Black Dahlia." Like so many of his movies, "Redacted" is difficult to watch but queasily fascinating. Which is likely almost enough for De Palma. He's still arguing against Magnolia Pictures' censorship of the graphic closing photo montage of mutilated or dead Iraqis, their faces blacked out to hide their identities. De Palma has always avoided that kind of compromise; he wants his issues to stare viewers nakedly in the face. "Redacted" frequently does.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times