Defiance opens Friday throughout the Triangle
I want to say something positive about Defiance. But it's hard. This WWII film is a trite clunker helmed by a director with no chops, and its awards-season release and pretensions to profundity are downright embarrassing.
The best thing I can think of to say about Defiance is that it is not the movie's fault that it had the misfortune to find a release date so close to that of Steven Soderbergh's Che, with which it has plenty of superficial similarities. Defiance, like the second half of Che, follows the establishment, construction and battles of a rebel camp. Defiance takes place in a Belorussian forest during the Holocaust while Che focuses on communist rebels in Bolivian backwoods, but both include ambushes, the tensions of infighting, and Defiance even has a smattering of the Party politics that informs so much of Che. But the similarities end there. Che is an inventive, engaging film. Defiance is a collection of clichés.
This movie spells trouble from the beginning, as it claims not to be based on actual events but that it is, in fact, "a true story." This might at first seem a minor distinction, but I think it's an important one. The simplistic movie that follows the statement wraps a devastating, messy chapter of history into a neat three-act structure. It may be historically accurate (I can't pretend to be knowledgeable enough to argue that point), and some people may even find it touching and rousing (some fellow audience members applauded during scenes). But I find the assertion that the film is the truth itself aggressive and impossible to believe. Edward Zwick's bombastic and conventional movie is not true to life's complications; it simplifies them.
The film's hero is Tuvia (improbably played by Daniel Craig), a Belorussian Jew who is fleeing the Nazis who have slaughtered most of the Jews in his town. On the run, Tuvia and his two brothers Asael (Jamie Bell) and Zus (Liev Schreiber, who I must admit doesn't look bad with a beard, a bandolier and a rifle) build a hideout that expands to house a small community of Jewish fugitives. Tuvia and Zus soon get into vicious quarrels about how to accommodate their charges and whether they should hide out and take shelter or go after the Nazis. Tuvia wants to play it as safe as possible; Zus is angrier and eventually defects to a nearby encampment of Soviets who are actively engaged in combat.
Zwick's film could benefit from some of the formal ingenuity of Che (or any kind of ingenuity), but his poor sense of the visual and kinetic makes this impossible. He masks his action sequences with a blurry, jerky post-production effect that makes the goings-on incomprehensible. As a director of actors and dialogue, Zwick seems to have run through the whole script with a highlighter; no exchange is subtle or casual. Movies can be bold and firm, they can hit their points with resolve and abandon subtly while still remaining intriguing—or at least inoffensive. But Zwick doesn't bludgeon his points as much as his audience.
It's not enough for Zwick that Zus discusses his bloodlust with his brother; Zus's face must be covered with blood from self-inflicted wounds as he does so. (You see, his need for vengeance could be his own guilt turned outward.) And it is not enough that Zus and Tuvia worry about the danger of their violent actions leading them to resemble their Nazi antagonists: Zus must don a Nazi officer cap after he leads an attack on a carful of Germans. The fact that characters discuss "not becoming one of them" multiple times is insulting enough—the hat pushes this into self-parody.
There is no real coherent point to Defiance, as it tries to have it every way at once. Zus is vilified by the camera, but his bloodlust is understandable. He leaves the rival faction that helps him satisfy his need for vengeance only after he realizes that they are anti-Semites. When he reunites with Tuvia, it is in battle (and out of nowhere, from what I could decipher from the confusing editing), so that Zus still gets to shoot at Nazis and Tuvia gets to have his brother back. We are meant to applaud their reunion and their defeat of a handful of Germans, but the key ideological question that the film bombards us with—whether fighting is feasible and ethical—is not penetrated. All they can do is try to survive however they can. For a film that does not prize subtlety, this vague theme is all the more unsatisfying.
There are plenty of bad movies, poorly made ones with groan-inducing dialogue and poorly shot action sequences. What's offensive about Defiance is that it seems to think it's insulated from criticism by virtue of dealing with the greatest, most shameful atrocities of our recent past. But this material deserves invention, innovation and artful reinterpretation. It demands more, not less.
To treat this subject matter without a single stroke of artistry, with an aggressively dim-witted script and defiantly negligent approach to the images on the screen—and what's more, to be full of yourself while doing it—is not to make an inconsequential, poor film. It is an insult to the audience, an affront to anyone who feels a connection with the people who suffered during this terrible time. With only a slight amount of hyperbole, I'd say this is not just a bad movie, it's a punishable crime.