There is sure to be much talk and swirling accusations about “The Wall” being anti-American or anti-military, but I think this is much ado about nothing. The story of two soldiers pinned down by an Iraqi sniper doesn’t exactly portray the pair of Marines as glorified heroes, but how many human beings wouldn’t be terrified into making mistakes if they were trapped in a life-or-death situation like this?
Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Matthews (John Cena) are two Marines sent to keep an eye out for any enemy fire after a mass shooting scene in the desert. When one of the men leaves his post to investigate, the two become critically wounded by an infamous terrorist (Laith Nakli) hiding nearby. Both are trapped by a decaying wall that used to be part of a schoolhouse before the war started and soon after taking sniper fire, Isaac begins to hear a voice on his military radio. It’s the sniper, and he’s taking great delight in toying with the American soldier.
The film’s small scale is all the more intense because of the limited focus and three main characters, including a truly frightening man that we never see. Isaac is trapped behind a few feet of crumbling stones in the unforgiving Iraqi desert sun with a bleeding, gaping gunshot wound, without water, and without radio capabilities to call for help. As he sits in an increasingly large pool of his own blood, desperately trying to pin the enemy’s location as time is running out, his spirit is slowly being broken by the relentless verbal taunting and the realization that there is zero hope that this scenario is going to end well for him.
There’s a powerful sense of paranoia and fear that carries over through director Doug Liman‘s close-ups and smooth tracking shots (this film made me remember what a great director Liman truly is). The audience becomes part of the action as the camera is always right there in the dusty, sand-encrusted faces of these soldiers. The performances are strong and forceful, and Taylor-Johnson deserves to be a huge star based on moving performances like this. He seamlessly transforms from fearless courage to heightened despair to naive hope from moment to moment, and he’s truly fantastic in the role.
This isn’t a shoot ’em up nonstop action war movie, it’s more of an intense psychological thriller and slow burning talky about the horrors of war. It’s interesting and distinct in both its limited, cramped setting and its exceedingly pessimistic tone. The harsh ending could’ve used some rewrites because it feels like more of a “gotcha” gimmick than something meaningful, but it altogether fits with the increasingly distressing tone of the film.
This narrow, effective, and cynical war movie proves that filmmakers don’t always need a huge budget or pricey movie stars to make something substantial and worthwhile.