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Film Review: ''71'

Andy Vasoyan |
March 8, 2015 | 1:11 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Jack O'Connell, who played USC hero Louis Zamperini in 'Unbroken,' plays a British soldier caught alone in a Belfast war zone in ''71' (StudioCanal)
Jack O'Connell, who played USC hero Louis Zamperini in 'Unbroken,' plays a British soldier caught alone in a Belfast war zone in ''71' (StudioCanal)
A turbulent and often disturbing ride, Yann Demange's ‘'71’ is a well-charted historical thriller perfect for those who value the journey more than the destination.

Set in Belfast, Ireland during a series of political, ethnic, and nationalist conflicts self-evidently called “The Troubles,” ‘'71’ clutches as desperately to the intense performance of lead Jack O'Connell as his character clutches to life. As Gary Hook, a troubled, quiet young soldier lost behind enemy lines, O'Connell displays a considerable talent for evincing internal conflict, which the young Englander honed during his small-screen premier in the British teen drama ‘Skins’.

In this campaign, O'Connell is mostly successful. His pain and frustration at the increasingly heartbreaking series of unexpected deaths that surround a riot trapping him in hostile IRA territory is animalistic to the point of being uncomfortable. Part of that visceral fear is due to the plot, a sturdy affair wherein Hook's survival depends entirely on luck and the kindness or poorly aimed malice of strangers. 

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That lack of agency wraps around him like a sinister fog, far-off at first but suddenly, unexpectedly, everywhere. In one particular scene, where anyone paying attention is guaranteed to jump, an explosion rocks the screen right at the point where you might expect there to be a breather and that's when you know that nobody is safe. After that point Hook is tossed and blown at the mercy of forces greater than he, and the tightly controlled screenplay makes the thoughtful and effective decision of never allowing him to ever take full control of the rudder again. Hook cowers,  whimpers, and lucks his way through the machinations of many unsavory militants, and is never the instrument of his own salvation; a turn that grounds the movie in the unyielding realism of war-torn '’71’.

The pains taken by to reflect that realism are also worth noting. Gloriously garish mustaches deck the upper lips of revolutionaries and counter-insurgents alike, and nary a minute goes by without a pukeworthy orange turtleneck or a retro-fashionable leather jacket, all period-appropriate thanks to costume designer Jane Petrie. Normally, there might also be some popular songs of the era sprinkled in the background as well, but music supervisor Dan Rodgers smartly withholds even that small comfort. If you leave the movie humming anything, it will be the ominous baseline theme of musician David Holmes, which haunts the film's many small climaxes like Ireland's bloody history itself.

The film's is not all convincing menace and sweat on your palm, however. The plot, which pushes Hook along on his journey, ends abruptly and with an odd, unsatisfying clunk like a pinball unexpectedly draining. Because of the plot’s breakneck speed, those who may have lost focus for even a small instant could easily become lost, and the twisty, who's-backstabbing-whom plot twists and chunky British accents are sure to cause a couple of moments of confusion. All in all, though, the film's tension almost never releases its tight, inevitable grip, and like Hook, the audience is dragged sweating, tense, and unsure through its intense 99 minute runtime. 

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