Going against character, Catherine Keener creates a traumatized survivor in 'War Story'
With her warmth and unforced style, Catherine Keener has a knack for drawing the viewer in. The traumatized photojournalist she plays in "War Story," however, wants to shut the world out. For years she's experienced life at its most brutal, in battle zones, and usually through the lens of her camera. Her unmooring in "War Story" is terrible and fascinating to behold, Keener's performance riveting.
The minimalism of Mark Jackson's film will no doubt frustrate some viewers. (It's the second in a planned "island trilogy," which began in 2011 with another unsettling female character study, "Without.") Long stretches are free of dialogue, especially in the first half of the movie, which finds Keener's character, Lee, in a state of shock and exhaustion on her arrival in Sicily after leaving Libya.
Jackson and co-writer Kristin Gore (daughter of Al and Tipper) provide the particulars of Lee's situation in shards of conversation, but for much of the early going it's the burdened physicality that Keener brings to the role that tells us everything we need to know.
Checking into a familiar hotel, Lee rearranges the furniture in her room to form a kind of bunker, shrouding herself in blankets and ignoring the ringing phone until she no longer can. In much the same way, she pushes away her emotions until she has no choice but to face them and let herself be overwhelmed.
With her survivor's guilt — she made it out of captivity in Libya, but her close colleague did not — Lee has come to a middle ground, ignoring the pleas of friends to return to New York. Walking through town, she's drawn to a detainment camp for Muslim refugees, where her picture-taking ignites the ire of police. After crossing paths with a distraught young Tunisian woman, Hafsia (Hafsia Herzi of "The Secret of the Grain"), Lee becomes determined to help her, and in the process receives a warning from the concierge about bringing "undesirable" guests into the hotel.
Political conflict and the immigrant's plight inform Lee's story, but Jackson has no pretensions that she's a heroic rescuer who's effecting change. When Lee initially mistakes Hafsia for the subject of a harrowing photo she took in Libya and insists that she, therefore, "knows" her, the film underscores not just the assumption of privilege but the disorienting consequences of violence and personal loss.
In Lee's encounter with a onetime mentor and lover (Ben Kingsley), we see glimpses of the kind of settled life she'll likely never enjoy.
Without the slightest play for audience sympathy, Keener creates a survivor who may be purposely losing her self while pursuing her story.
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes