(SPOILERS) TV director Yann Demange’s big screen debut depicts a tense, claustrophobic struggle for survival in unknown alien territory. There’s danger at every quarter and only ever limited respite. Such tales are a subgenre unto themselves, from the backwoods versus civilised man of Deliverance (and its spiritual remake Southern Comfort) to comedy of urban disarray After Hours. The difference with ’71 is that its backdrop generally inspires stern tones and serious discussion; the Troubles. Accordingly, some might regard the film as in poor taste. Yet, despite rejecting overt political or moral debate, this doesn’t make the mistake of proceeding in a shallow or irreverent manner; ’71 does have a position, but it’s one intentionally shorn of rigorous analysis of its chosen environment; it arrives through the eyes of a protagonist just trying to live through the night.
On that level, the picture most closely resembles the imminent urban horror of early John Carpenter (Assault on Precinct 13, Escape from New York) or gang movies such as The Warriors (Walter Hill again) and The Wanderers. Indeed, while playwright Gregory Burke’s screenplay gives significant time to the enemy (who come at our main character from all quarters, both Provisional IRA and the undercover army counter-insurgency unit attempting to cover its tracks) it makes no bones about the machinations and motivations of those with vested interests being thoroughly unscrupulous. Power struggles and infighting are rife. Self-preservation, rather than conviction, is the priority, be it in the British Army or the paramilitaries.
This is crystallised by casting an “innocent” in the midst of it all. At one point Private Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) is told the army doesn’t care about him, he’s just a piece of meat to them; the downbeat conclusion, in which there is an inevitable cover-up of the truth, goes to confirm this. As defining is Hook’s conversation with the lad who offers to lead him to safety across enemy lines. Asked if he is a protestant, Derbyshire-raised Hook replies that he doesn’t know. The boy can scarcely believe him, since denomination is an essential aspect of existence.
Demange and Burke take time to introduce Hook – on a training exercise, visiting his brother in the children’s home – before he is told that, rather than Berlin, his unit is heading for Belfast. Undesirable elements further arrange themselves as a new commander Lieutenant Armitage (Sam Reid) is introduced, young and inexperienced and a bit of a fool (while his first appearance suggests the classic groaner of the upper class idiot officer, Burke grants him an olive branch of honour at the end even though it is his remiss orders that land Hook in his mess).
When the unit is sent to provide back-up for an RUC house search in the Falls Road, the heated situation quickly turns into a street riot and Hook and another soldier become separated. A gunman kills this soldier, and Hook flees for his life. As day turns to night, he finds himself pursued not only by the IRA but also by his own (the plain clothes Military Reaction Force).
Demange handles the action with deceptively easy confidence. From the confused escalation of the riot to a foot chase through empty backstreets, passageways, and empty shells of buildings, he creates a breathless, edge-of-seat, environment. Most importantly he understands how to use handheld camera without sacrificing the rhythms of a sequence or spatial geography. The chase might be the best since Point Break; it certainly compares for ambition and urgency.
O’Connell, who is carrying the picture for the most part (the decision to put him partially out of action comes as a surprise to that extent, but it also serves to keep the audience on their toes as to what may lie ahead), is outstanding. Frightened and vulnerable, but not at the expense of his wits, Hook’s rawest moment comes when he first eludes his pursuers by hiding in an outhouse. His first reaction is to claw for breath, which then breaks into uncontrollable sobbing. Demange takes a lot of care to put us right there with the lost private; later, as Hook stumbles shell-shocked from the scene of a pub bomb, the tinnitus and visual fog is overpowering.
As with any such similar narrative, there are moments of reprieve before our hero is thrown to the wolves again. Richard Dormer plays a Good Samaritan (Eamon) who is compelled to help Hook, even given the risks his daughter Brigid (Charlie Murphy) impresses upon him. It is he, who as an army medic has seen first hand the horrors that occur when men are treated as cannon fodder. Few characters, understandably, have the courage of their convictions in this world (also notable is the woman who gets in the way of the mob beating on the two privates), and Demange refrains from more typical movie heroism that comes from overt acts of valour or derring-do.
We see this difference early on when Hook goes into a building where an interrogation is taking place, or witnesses police brutality on the street; his instincts tell him it is not right, but he follows orders. It is ironic and inevitable, then, that Eamon should lead Hook into the lion’s den; the very flats that Hook’s unit has been told to avoid at all costs. It’s left unknown, but there is surely little doubt that there will be reprisals against Eamon and Brigid for saving Hook.
It’s true that a picture such as this, infused with compressed mayhem and white-knuckle tension, relies on a certain level of contrivance to keep up its momentum. That Hook should end up in the very pub where Paul Anderson’s plainclothes sergeant is planning subterfuge is on the unlikely side, while the interlacing trails that bring the various factions to the Divis Flats is also overly convenient. Nevertheless, Demange maintains a constant edge and immediacy such that these points never become glaring.
There are moments too that surprise and add nuance to the nuts-and-bolts of the serviceable structure. The amusing scene that comes out of nowhere, as the cocky “loyalist child” leads the silent Hook to a checkpoint and remonstrates those manning it; they immediately change their tune when he mentions his ranking uncle. The child is tougher and more worldy-wise than Hook, but it doesn’t prevent him going up with the pub.
A later scene finds Hook hunted by the young IRA men. He stabs one (Martin McCann), but Demange and Burke don’t turn this into a moment of triumph. Instead Hook, who has never killed a man before, remains with him as the life ebbs away. That ‘71 denies Hook classic heroics (and injures him) is crucial to it avoiding descent into the realms of an exploitation picture.
Balanced against this is the occasional duff spot. The character we thought was dead, who rises to take a last shot, is more the sort of thing one would expect from a Lethal Weapon and the pyrotechnic shoot-out that accompanies the conclusion is perhaps over-rehearsed. Yet the point where the picture concludes, with no means to buck the system, is appropriately jaundiced.
The entire cast acquit themselves with honours. Others deserving a mention include David Wilmot, Barry Keoghan (who reminds me of the kid haunting Kiefer in Flatliners) and Corey McKinley as that “loyalist child”. Sean Harris is typically rodent-like and ferocious as the MRF captain; if he isn’t quite as disturbing as he was in Red Riding Trilogy, I’ve yet to see him in anything where he doesn’t utterly command any given scene. (Actually, scratch that, I recall that he loves rocks. He fucking loves them)
David Holmes provides an outstanding synth score, unobtrusive but insistent, atmospherically lurking alongside and complementing the action. Likewise, the gritty ‘70s milieu feels entirely authentic without ever wagging the dog. I might take issue with the title, which suggests the picture has an agenda or intent it doesn’t really. It also might have been more powerful still without the bookending of Hook and his brother, although this feeds into the scenes with McKinley so its understandable why they were retained (further, they provide respite and establish that the picture is about Hook rather than where he is shipped to). O’Connell is going from strength-to-strength just now (he’s rumoured for Gilliam’s ever-delayed Don Quixote) and Demange will no doubt be getting big offers in the post on the back of ’71. He has made a fine thriller with a palpable sense of time and place, just one that is not really about that time and place.