In the late ‘60s, TV coverage of the Vietnam War gave it the repetitiveness of a bad dream. That’s probably what Brian DePalma is after in “Casualties of War” (citywide): a nightmare, reeking with blood, tears and cold sweat.
Taken from a real-life incident, DePalma’s movie turns into a battle epic with a screw loose. It conveys a sense of moral quagmire, of sinking into squishily dangerous terrain, honeycombed with tunnels and traps, all hell exploding around it. That’s the imagery of the movie’s first battle scene, a taut prologue for a superb film.
DePalma may have found here the perfect arena for his darkly voluptuous expertise. Working with a David Rabe script that uses Daniel Lang’s New Yorker reportage, he gets a bad-dream Vietnam. This isn’t reality but hyper-reality: war as experienced in the oscillations between fatigue and terror, or recalled by someone fighting back the horror of his recollections. There’s a moral charge to the action, but it’s also swooningly exciting, coldly scary. Every friend may be an enemy, every innocent a traitor.
Lang’s book revolved around a brutally shocking 1966 incident in which the leader of a five-man reconnaissance squad, Sgt. Tony Meserve, informed his men that, before setting out on their mission, they would kidnap a Vietnamese farm girl, rape her en masse and then murder and dump her to cover their tracks. Astonishingly, all the men went along with this plan, except for one upright Minnesota farm boy, Sven Eriksson--like the others, a fictitious name--who refused to participate and later tried to bring his squad mates to justice.
The horror of the premise soaks right into the movie’s bones. In its scheme, everyone is a casualty of war: not only the poor, brutalized girl but the men themselves, turned by this hell into monsters or cowardly bystanders. The movie contrasts two temperaments: Eriksson’s thoughtful reserve, Meserve’s posturing bravado. And two styles of heroism: Meserve’s undeniable bravery in battle, and the moral courage Eriksson needs to report the crime. The story becomes a battle between men who pervert the system to their own uses and others who, out of passionate conviction, try to buck it.
Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn, who play Eriksson and Meserve, respectively, have such dissimilar styles that, at times, they seem to be inhabiting different movies. Fox, in his best dramatic performance to date, has the laid-back, tamped-in, deferential quality of a skilled TV performer. Penn, on the other hand, bursts the boundaries of his role with his gargoyle intensity, his drilling gaze, his jaws perpetually chewing a plug of tobacco. Grabbing his crotch or waving his rifle, he’s like a young kid’s parody of a warrior: a macho paradigm.
The whole Vietnam episode is part of a reverie--Eriksson’s--triggered when he sees a woman who looks just like the victim Oahn (played by the same actress, Thuy Thu Le). Meserve’s excesses seem part of that nightmare; so do the excesses of the rest of the cast. As the near-psychotic Clark, Don Harvey has a werewolf glower and an ominous mad-dog grim. John Reilly’s Hatcher is a gangling, slack-jawed goof, Erik King’s Brownie a florid clown and Ving Rhames’ Lt. Reilly a coldblooded rationalist.
“Casualties of War” is DePalma’s 19th movie and easily his best. His detractors saw his Hitchcock-pastiche thrillers as manipulative and sadistic, but here he’s not dealing with stylish slashers or bloody set-pieces. He doesn’t have to reach for a shock. He’s dredging up a deeper horror: the hell that lies beneath every man’s skin, waiting to erupt.
There may be a conflict here between DePalma and Rabe’s temperaments--Rabe is said to dislike the movie--and, in a way, it’s understandable. Rabe probably tried to make the nightmare real; DePalma turned it back into a nightmare.
But that hallucinatory framework is what makes the movie uniquely his. The old virtuosity is there--the murderously complicated long-take tracking shots, the macabre jokes at the edge of the frame, the deep-focus compositions. But they’re buried in the story, they don’t draw attention to themselves. And the themes and ideas are typical for DePalma too: the interplay of voyeurism and guilt, the heroine who can’t escape, the linkage of violence and repressed or twisted sex, the obsession with a system’s secret rot, with a nightmare taking over your life.
“Casualties of War” questions the whole current movie idea of heroism in war: the blood-spattered boy’s fantasies and one-against-a-hundred lollapaloozas of the ‘80s. Oddly enough, Meserve is more heroic and sympathetic in the movie than he was in Lang’s book; he saves Eriksson’s life and staunchly ministers to a dying black buddy (both fictitious episodes). We don’t have the satisfaction of regarding Meserve as a coward, a hypocrite, a phony; he’s a good soldier who’s come to believe he has the right to rape and kill innocents.
“Casualties of War” (MPAA-rated R for sex and violence) is no indictment of the American soldier--indeed, Vietnam combat veterans may be among those most moved by it--but it is an indictment of the idea that individual brutality can be cloaked by a system. For Eriksson, the horror of the episode was its anonymity; he refused to let the girl suffer and die for nothing. That’s the bravest and finest part of the film, what all the people involved--DePalma, Rabe, Penn, Fox, composer Ennio Morricone, cinematographer Stephen Burum, all of the cast and crew--should be proudest of celebrating.
The heroism of the real-life Eriksson lay not in revenge, but in his devotion to the victim. For all those who suffered or died anonymously in the juggernaut of the Vietnam War, or any war--or the victims in their mass graves, the demonstrators shot down in a city square, the millions of bystanders caught and killed in the cross-fire--the movie makes its lonely plea. The leitmotif Morricone uses for Oahn, the mournful pan flute that underscores her plight, comes back like an anguished cry, pushed up past breath, past hope, the last call of the suffering in a world in which death and horror are not only the province of the night.
‘CASUALTIES OF WAR’
A Columbia Pictures release of an Art Linson production. Producer Linson. Director Brian DePalma. Script David Rabe. Camera Stephen H. Burum. Editor Bill Pankow. Music Ennio Morricone. Production design Wolf Kroeger. Art director Bernard Hydes. With Michael J. Fox, Sean Penn, Don Harvey, John C. Reilly, John Leguizamo, Thuy Thu Le, Erik King, Ving Rhames.
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes.
MPAA rating: R (under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian).
HER FIRST ROLE
Interview with Thuy Thu Le, the young actress in “Casualties.” Page 20