In 2003, a video game called Manhunt was released by Rockstar Games amidst fierce controversy for its graphic violence. You pilot your character through shellacked, industrial environments, often armed with only a brick, plastic bag, or shard of glass. Everyone around you is in one gang or another, with their MO typically involving a creepy pig or doll-face mask. You would sneak up on these individuals and violently subdue them, being rewarded if you did so in a more protracted, brutal fashion. Your reason for this antisocial behavior was a voice on the other end of a scratchy radio, a proto-Jigsaw who guided you through the hostile world ostensibly for your survival. It was kill or be killed.
This is the sort of thing I thought about while watching first-time director Yann Demange's film about the Troubles, '71. Set over the course of a single night in Belfast, it follows British Army private Gary Hook (Jack O'Connell) as he struggles to survive after being left behind in IRA territory following a violent riot. His presence stirs up constant violence wherever he goes, as the IRA relentlessly hunts him down, Irish loyalists to the UK protect him, and skeevy British double agents in the IRA attempt to silence him for bearing witness to a botched bombing attempt. Demange keeps the action tense and immediate, while Gregory Burke's screenplay walks a treacherous tightrope in portraying both sides of the conflict as comprised of reckless psychopaths, with plenty of grey area in between.
On budget of what amounts to roughly $12 million - strikingly low for an action film of this size and ambition - Demange squeezes every bit that he can out of the dense, frightening atmosphere of early 70s Belfast. The film is set almost entirely at night, granting him the moody yellow tones that the streetlights cast on the rain-soaked streets. Oranges and browns dominate the color palette both in terms of scenery (there's usually a fire burning somewhere) and the costume design (see above for early 70s). Given the circumstances, the film's tone is suitably grim and dour, although there are brief and welcome moments of levity interspersed throughout, chiefly in the form of the colorful characters Hook encounters throughout the night. Best of all is a young, foul-mouthed loyalist who completely steals the film for the brief time he has on-screen, played by Corey McKinley. When he threatens a pair of drunken, sass-mouthed older men, you laugh because of the irony as well as because of how serious he seems.
O'Connell continues his takeover of cornering the market on stoic, desperate protagonists, an onslaught he waged in Unbroken and Starred Up. In this film, he barely speaks at all, which makes sense because he'd either give away his position as he sneaks around, or the fact that he is a Brit, a dangerous way to be in his situation. He is central to the story, but the backdoor dealings between the IRA and British double agents take up the most plot time, placing O'Connell firmly in the role of audience surrogate. He compensates for his near-silence by relying on his expressive face and eyes, which convey all we need to know about his desperation. An early scene establishes that he has left a younger brother in an orphanage back home, so we know that he has plenty to live for. O'Connell is well on his way to stardom, and films like this are excellent showcases for his talent.
Demange also deserves every bit of praise that is coming his way. Although he has a clear antecedent in Paul Greengrass, he never allows his immediate visual style to get in the way of clarity. During the more intense scenes, the camera approaches Blair Witch Project levels of shakiness, yet Demange choreographs the several setpieces and chases such that we know precisely where everyone is at any given time. For a first-time director, this is an incredible feat, as most Hollywood action offerings have developed a taste for visual incoherence that induces boredom rather than excitement. Demange also refuses to look away during the film's more brutal moments, whether they involve physical or emotional violence. As such, the film can be a tough sit at times: one scene involves graphic and bloody stitching that is not for the weak-of-stomach.
'71, due to its historical setting and lack of American cast members, will likely not get the attention it deserves. The dialogue between the characters can be exceedingly difficult to understand at times due to their thick accents, but this is not the fault of the film. Indeed, I missed much of the dialogue yet knew exactly what was going on at all times. This can be attributed to Demange's remarkable visual sense, and is an indication that he is someone to watch in the future.