Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) is an idealistic British soldier who’s accidentally stranded by his unit after a street riot in Belfast. Alone and scared beyond belief, Gary’s life is hanging by a thread, and this tense, suffocating universe is effectively captured in ’71 .
Director Yann Demange wasn’t interested in crafting a political polemic or all-encompassing take on war’s exacting toll. Instead, we are thrown right into the fire-bombed and bullet ridden streets where Gary struggles to survive. Within every corner lies that probable meet and greet with the Grim Reaper, and when even members of your company turn out to be corrupt (and inept), how can a soldier truly persevere?
As witnessed in last year’s woefully overlooked epic “Unbroken,” Jack O’Connell is a natural at playing gritty, determined, yet ultimately vulnerable characters. Though blessed with an innate physicality, O’Connell imbues Hook with an appropriate level of fear and passive aggressiveness, as Hook knows receding into the background may just save his life.
To infuse ’71 with the necessary period feel, Demange and cinematographer shot on 16mm for the daytime scenes, but since a heavy portion of the flick was shot during the dead of night, the pair went digital to capture the immediacy (and inevitable violence) of Hook’s journey.
Since Demange cites the tough guy driven work of Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samurai) , Walter Hill (The Warriors, The Driver), and John Carpenter (Assault on Precinct 13), ’71’s main goal is to succeed as a pulse-pounding, muscular thriller. It’s a film that easily resides within that realm, and even if it doesn’t elevate the genre, it still packs a lot of heat.
Though you may leave ’71 sans a deeper knowledge of that era, the film’s theme holds a universal theme. What occurs, when a focused and brave soldier, realizes that his life may be expendable? Each individual must choose his or her battle, and for Gary Hook that epic journey begins and ends with his own self-preservation. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but thanks to O’Connell’s gutsy and arresting performance, coupled with Demange’s assured storytelling, ’71 is a satisfying, cinematic gut punch to the soul.
’71 (R, 99 minutes) is now playing in Los Angeles (Arclight Hollywood, The Landmark) and New York (Angelika Film Center, AMC Lincoln Square)