Man, I wanted to like The Wall more than I did. Maybe that’s not fair. I was all-in for 95% of this film, and then all-out for the final 5%. And, in most cases, I can forgive a film a lackluster ending if the material that came before is worthwhile. But not here. Here, the finale of this film is so unsatisfying that it basically made me rethink the rest. There is a pessimism in this ending that isn’t present in the rest of the picture. Sure, bad things happen – even bad things we know are going to happen – but not on the level that this ending delivers.
The Wall is a sparse, claustrophobic thriller set in 2007 during the “mission accomplished” phase of the Iraq War. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena play Isaac and Matthews, two U.S. soldiers investigating an ambush on some pipeline contractors. After a sniper attack, Isaac is left hiding behind a wall with a leg wound and little water, while Matthews is out in the open, shot in the good, and facing a grim future. The sniper, a legend in the area known as Juba, begins communicating with Isaac over the radio, playing head games and tormenting him – threatening to blow his comrade’s face off if he doesn’t spill personal information about his life. The next ninety minutes are, essentially, Isaac trying to figure his way out of an impossible situation when he is clearly outgunned, outsmarted, and out-motivated every step of the way.
I should start with this: I am super into Aaron Taylor-Johnson. I have been since Kick-Ass. Yes, I know – he has given several questionable performances, but I always root for him, and keep looking for those flashes of greatness I saw in his earliest work. It also helps that I think he’s one of the most gorgeous men on the planet. So, I am a bit bias, for sure. Here, he’s given his juiciest role yet and he delivers likely his best performance to date. If there is one thing he knows how to do well it’s a redneck Southern accent, and his Isaac never loses our attention as he attempts to outwit someone who is always several steps ahead. It reminded me of a scaled down version of Enemy at the Gates, where Jude Law and Ed Harris went toe-to-toe for two hours. Juba is better than Harris’s character was in that film before he is vested with a far greater purpose.
Even though director Doug Liman tries to keep The Wall from veering into political territory, this is a film about people being where the film obviously thinks they do not belong. And the ending certainly backs up that theory. Juba is the antagonist but Isaac speaks in ways that really make us wonder if maybe – just maybe – he is? One key exchange is where Isaac calls the wall that he is using for shelter as his wall, when Juba is quick to point out that nothing in that land is his. Isaac seems to take this in and recognize it but it speaks to the whole notion of why we were there and what we really accomplished. The Wall would have you believe we accomplished very little and maybe that some characters even get what they deserved.
I had an enormous problem with the ending of this film. It rang false as a tacked-on Hollywood ending that was hammering home an unnecessary political point and really making light of the previous ninety minutes. I don’t expect happy endings but I expect endings that don’t betray the sense of decency I expect from a filmmaker about a subject. It was the same issue I had, to a lesser extent, with Brian De Palma’s Redacted, a monstrous and viciously shameful film that had no point other than to demonize our military in very broad ways. The Wall is more specific – it doesn’t demonize the military or the soldiers, but their motivations for doing what they’re doing. The Wall takes the blame that belongs on a country and places it on individuals, forces us to care about those individuals on some level, and then shits all over its accomplishments.
So, I don’t know. The audience I was in had a visceral reaction to the end credits of this film, a sort of unified, “Seriously?” And it’s a shame because Taylor-Johnson really does deliver a powerhouse performance, with able-bodied support from the underrated John Cena. This film could have been so much better with one simple change – the shot we think might be the final shot actually is the final shot. Maybe that means I wanted a happy ending. But, with what had happened in the previous ninety minutes, how would that have been happy? The Wall wants you to believe it isn’t political. It is. The fact that it won’t embrace that openly makes it sort of a cinematic coward. At least Redacted embraced it, as vile as that picture was. If you’re a filmmaker with a message, at least have the courage of your convictions.