RECAP: The Wall
The Wall (2017): Doug Liman
On the heels of the critical success Edge of Tomorrow, Doug Liman made a tiny movie called The Wall. For $3 million you get Aaron Taylor-Johnson rolling around in sand and treating leg wounds. Also, there’s a sniper.
The Wall came and went about as fast as a bullet from 1,500 yards, its impact minimal. Released in mid-May, the film fell into the wash of the rocket ride that was Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: A crumbling brick wall is all that protects an American soldier from an Iraqi sniper’s bullets.
A sergeant named Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is the scout for a two-person sniper team in the United States military. The Wall begins in media res, as Isaac and his shooter, Matthews (John Cena), observe the scene of six deaths in Iraq in 2007.
Isaac and Matthews are enmeshed amongst scrub atop a hill overlooking a desolate desert flatland. What was a construction site for a pipeline as recently as yesterday is now a crime scene, as the bodies of six American contractors lie dead, all victims of an attack.
Matthews thinks a squad of four guys killed the men. Isaac knows better. He thinks a pro did it. None of the dead are anywhere near cover. It’s as if they died, each of them, without knowing they were under attack.
Isaac turns out to be right, but he’ll take no consolation from it. Matthews gets shot. Isaac runs to help him and gets shot himself, most of the damage coming to his knee. Isaac leaps over the only cover in the area, a waist high, crumbling brick wall.
The next hour of screen time and several hours of Isaac’s life test his will to live. The only voice in the area to speak to belongs to the sniper who shot him, a man named Juba (Laith Nakli), a famed sniper who never appears on screen, speaking only through the local radio.
The Wall is about as close to a one-man show as a movie gets. All the pressure lies on Taylor-Johnson, and he owns it. I knew him from Avengers: Age of Ultron and Godzilla, two roles he made as interesting as, uh, a wall. In The Wall he’s a force of fear, anger, and confusion, a reversal of the previous roles.
Acting alone, Isaac uses a tourniquet to staunch the bleeding from his knee wound. He packs the hell out of it with gauze, this after using his unsanitary knife to extract the bullet from his gaping wound. Isaac uses the few tools he has to multiply his odds of survival, but when you multiply zero by anything, you still get zero.
Isaac realizes his position early, and he must suffer the psychological torture from his opponent Juba. Juba just wants to chat on the radio. Isaac wants to survive. He hates Juba, calling him a “hajji” several times. Nevertheless, he tells Juba his reasons for carrying the scope of his former friend and compatriot, now dead.
Isaac was once a shooter himself. Dean was his scope man. They tracked a sniper and shot him. Dean went to check on the sniper, but the guy was playing possum and struck back. In the panic Isaac shot at the sniper but hit Dean instead. He’s lied about killing his friend to everyone ever since, until he tells Juba the truth. It’s the moment when Juba wins.
Tragic hero he is, Isaac is easy to root for. He hunkers down against an enemy he can’t see in a land he can’t stand, afraid to go home and face those who knew Dean, the man he shot dead.
Only a voice, Juba is a famed sniper shooting his way through Iraq during the American invasion. With 75 confirmed US kills, Juba is the most dangerous person in the country. He never appears onscreen, only through voice does he interact with Isaac.
Juba first tricks Isaac by pretending to be American brass. He asks Isaac to fire into the air to give his position. He misspeaks Isaac’s rank. It’s a bad impression, but Isaac falls for it because he’s desperate for medivac. When Isaac sees through the ruse, Juba laughs. “I am hiding behind words like you are hiding behind that wall.”
Isaac asks, “You want 12 fucking virgins or something?” Juba answers, “I just want to get to know you.” He claims to be a regular Iraqi man, but we know better: Juba is Iraq’s Hannibal Lecter. Starved for companionship, Juba will take it wherever he can, in this case a “G. I. Joe” who is bleeding out behind a crumbling wall.
Juba quotes Edgar Allan Poe to Isaac, reciting long stretches of The Raven. He believes military lingo is a form of poetry, and he’s fascinated by the bond amongst the brotherhood of soldiers. He’s also killed dozens of them. He probably doesn’t eat his kills, so he’s not exactly like Dr. Lecter. Then again: “When this is over the skin will be cut from your face.”
“We are not so different, you and I,” Juba says, a line I think I’ve heard from countless other villains. He and Isaac kill people. I think the similarities end there. Juba clearly enjoys the killing. Isaac doesn’t know what he enjoys.
That Juba is the best sniper in Iraq, perhaps the world, is clear. He shoots a moving target three times from 1,500 meters. He did not want to kill Isaac, only to wound him and destroy him psychologically. He shoots the radio antenna strapped to Isaac’s back, his water bottle, and his knee, knowing that Isaac cannot stop bleeding from a wound there. He often threatens to shoot Matthews’s face off so he’ll have a closed casket funeral. He’s a sick bastard.
Let’s face facts, not much happens in The Wall. There’s poetry chat. A couple of guys die. Shots are exchanged. A wall comes tumbling down. The movie’s over.
Any movie, no matter how small, can have an action scene. The Wall has two. One is the climax, covered later. The other comes near the beginning. Matthews, who roams the killing field where the foreign contractors lie dead, surveys the scene. It’s “lonely as fuck” down there, he says. Suddenly he’s shot in the leg, hitting the sand immediately.
Isaac, who’s up on the hill a hundred yards away, sprints toward his partner. He knows a sniper is out there, and he employs standard tactics, bobbing and weaving, herking and jerking to randomize his movement and present a difficult target. The camera tracks alongside Isaac as he runs, adding to the scene’s urgency. We see the scene through Juba’s scope for the first time.
Isaac’s bobbing does nothing. He’s shot in the knee. Isaac hobbles to the wall he earlier called cursed. He tumbles over the wall and the wall tumbles over him. His knee cap is as exposed as Matthews, who cries in pain a few yards away from the wall and feet from his rifle.
Isaac, panicking, unfurls a strap from his person and cinches it above his knee wound. The strap comes with a tourniquet, which he wrenches a few times. Great spittle work from Taylor-Johnson here, the camera in his face. Later, Isaac taps at his wound with his knife, a scene that caused my whole body to clench.
And there you have it. Not much going on. Edge of Tomorrow this ain’t. And that’s OK.
The crew elevated its sand-and-dirt game to another level. Isaac colors his clothes and body in treating, evolving ways. In a movie as small as The Wall, details matter. The viewer has less to concentrate on and thus more to see. Nailing the little things matters, and they did.
Matthews is the hulking “gorilla fuck” who shoots the bad guys Isaac scopes out. He’s convinced that the men shot by Juba were victims of several men, and that mistake costs him his life. As he patrols the shooting gallery he notes that all the men died from head shots. As soon as he says this to Isaac over the radio he’s shot in the leg.
Isaac runs to rescue him and is shot in turn, stumbling to cover behind the titular wall. Matthews stays in the open and eventually passes out.
But he doesn’t die. Several hours later he regains consciousness and fakes his way toward his rifle. He takes a few shots at Juba’s position, misses, crawls toward Isaac, is shot in the head. So passes Matthews.
You’d think that in a movie with three characters, one of who never appears on screen, there would not be a henchman. You’d often be right. But in The Wall‘s case, you’d be wrong. The wall itself, that’s right, surprise surprise, is the henchman.
Isaac leaps over the wall shortly after being shot three times by Juba. He expects the wall will protect him long enough for him to think up a better plan. He’s wrong. Eventually we learn that Juba’s rifle is so powerful and the wall’s construction so weak that he can shoot it down.
The wall also cracks Isaac’s finger when he knocks out part of it to make room for his scope. It didn’t like being messed with. Perhaps the wall knew Isaac was an American, and his ilk had destroyed the building it once comprised. A school. That’s right, the wall has a backstory. Juba claims that the wall was once part of a school. Perhaps we should not trust Juba, but he has reasons to hate Americans. Why not this one?
Juba could have killed Isaac many times, but he let the wall lull him into a sense of safety that Juba slowly eroded, eroded like the wall.
“That wall’s cursed I’m scared of what’s behind it.” Turns out, Isaac, YOU were behind it.
One point is awarded for making an inanimate object an object of menace.
Most of the action in The Wall is stunt work. Most of the stunt work belongs to Taylor-Johnson. He cinches a leg wound, he runs and leaps and tumbles. Mostly he gets dirty. I enjoyed the color progression of his face. First clean; then black from sweat and grime; then pink from sun exposure; finally a half-brown, half-white Braveheart concoction made possible by sleeping on the sand.
I was surprised to find that Matthews survived getting shot. He wakes up but can’t speak. He’s lucid enough to know not to move or use the radio. Matthews draws a piece of mirror to reflect light in Isaac’s eyes. Matthews’s rifle lies a body length from Matthews, and a dust storm is still swirling enough material that he could reach it without Juba noticing.
Juba recites Poe on the radio while Isaac yells at Matthews that he found that sucker’s position in the trash pile 1,500 meters away. He gets back on the radio to draw Juba’s attention from Matthews, and the change in tone is obvious. For the first time Isaac seems interested in conversing with Juba. The enemy sniper doesn’t notice the change. Perhaps he should have.
Matthews does the slowest crawl possible to his rifle. He can only move in waves, partly from his bleeding out and partly for the cover the waves of sand provide. “Everyone will know who the winner is” when he’s done with them, Juba says.
The storm calms. Matthews’s cover is gone, though he’s reached the rifle. “Slowly,” Isaac calls to Matthews. He forgot that his finger was still on the radio button. Juba overhears. He’s mad. Isaac tries to distract Juba. He finally admits why he carries a dead man’s scope. Dean, Isaac’s former partner, died on his watch. Bad news, buddy. He no longer picks up rifles, but you get the sense that he will soon.
Matthews rights his rifle and targets the trash pile. He takes four errant shots, not knowing where to shoot. They all miss, of course, and Juba shoots him in the shoulder. Matthews doesn’t give up. He crawls toward the wall and fleeting safety. Juba lets him. Then he shoots him in the dead.
That’s the moment Isaac breaks. He weeps for his friend. “I want to go fucking home,” he says. Juba sees through his lies. He demands to know why Isaac is still in Iraq. The war is over. Isaac comes clean. For the first time he tells the truth about Dean. An accident, sure, but he shot him. A significant ratio of American troop deaths come from friendly fire, but that can’t make it easier. Isaac is still in Iraq because he fears the sight of Dean’s family at home.
Isaac decides it’s time for the end game. Earlier he rescued a radio from one of the contractors, and he finally decides to use its antenna on his radio pack. He hears Juba speaking to the American military, impersonating him, asking for pickup. Why Juba does this is unclear. Is it more psychological torture? Juba won’t fake Isaac’s appearance when the choppers come? Why do this?
The sun drops, and Isaac awakens to a crow pecking at his knee. He also hears helicopters flying. He’s going to finish this. Isaac makes a fishing line with rope and a stick to catch Matthews’s rifle. He sets it up. The helicopters are in sight. “I ain’t afraid to die,” he says, and with that mantra Isaac shoves down the wall. I bet Juba didn’t expect that.
Juba takes two shots that strike the dirt on either side of Isaac. Isaac doesn’t appear to consider that he missed on purpose. “No one’s that good,” he’s said several times before, though Juba proved that he is that good. The shots expose Juba’s position, and Isaac fires one round into a black void.
No return fire. He dares to dream. The helicopters land and soldiers flood toward Isaac, who stands and looks, risking his life. It’s the tensest moment in The Wall.
Lying on a stretcher, Isaac rests in one of the choppers as it flies over the trash heap. Suddenly one of the nurses falls down dead. Shots ricochet in the chopper. Juba lives.
Isaac screams that he’s in the trash pile, but the others are too baffled to comprehend. There’s nothing they could do about it anyway, because Juba has just shot the pilot and the chopper is plummeting to the sand.
A black screen.
The last shot of the film is of two helicopters smoking on the sand.
Matthews tells Isaac that it’s so hot that his balls are melting into “one fucking ball.” That was a good line. Matthews’s and Isaac’s banter in the opening is the lone bit of humor. The Wall is brief enough (81 minutes) that a single joke carries much weight. No biggie.
It ain’t much, but it’s a wall. What was once the four walls of a school house is now about 1/10th its former size. The wall’s bricks barely remain. Any commingling agent has long disintegrated. The Jenga tower of bricks collapses in sections from a single bullet. In the end, Isaac pushes down what’s left of it.
Isaac uses what’s available to help him survive. Chicken wire wrapped around a piece of wood helps Isaac make a dummy soldier. Another piece of wood plus rope becomes a fishing line to capture Matthews’s sniper rifle. OK, that’s it.
The desert appears brutal and unforgiving, much like Juba. Sun bakes the area as Matthews patrols it. A dust storm is the only thing that saves Isaac’s life. So much gunk and grime covers Isaac’s face that it’s hard to tell where his beard starts, or if he has a beard. I was never certain.
The lesson learned: don’t get caught in the Iraqi desert.
Isaac represents America’s role in Iraq: confused why he’s there, there too long, unsure what to do against an entrenched enemy.
Isaac hates Juba, with good reason; they guy’s trying to kill him. He calls him a “dirty fucking hajji,” an offensive term, at least the way Isaac says it. He uses “hajji” often.
I don’t know if making a movie in which the villain is never seen is an offensive act. Seems like it is, unintentionally. Juba’s lack of screen time makes him a more frightening villain, but only because we don’t know where he is. Liman grants us glimpses through Juba’s scope, so why not some close ups of his eye, or a tight shot of his finger caressing the trigger? Either case would not give away his position. We know he can see Isaac. What’s the reason for holding back?
- I liked the way Isaac called to his partner. “Sar” Matthews it sounded like, calling the sergeant.
- (3) Automatic war movie bonus
- (1) Great dialogue, essential in a film this small.
Summary (24/68): 35%
A fast-pased thriller, The Wall is perhaps better described as a horror movie than a war or action movie. I believe Alfred Hitchcock would have felt right at home on this set, were it not for the unrelenting sun and desert heat. A torturous villain, a hero stuck in one place, safety within sight but so far from reach: sound like Rear Window to you?