‘The Wall’ Isn’t a War Movie, It’s a Horror Film
Fear the unknown
This review contains spoilers.
The poster for The Wall is misleading. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s head dominates the top two thirds of the image and the American flag covers his wistful face. He looks like a forlorn U.S. soldier cradling Old Glory. On the bottom, John Cena lies prone in front of a wall, taking aim at an unseen enemy. The message is clear–these two will kick some terrorist ass and learn something about ‘Merica in the process.
How wrong I was. What looks like another by-the-numbers action flick set during the latter days of America’s war for the Middle East is actually a horror movie. This isn’t Jarhead or The Hurt Locker, it’s something else entirely. Instead of being a desert-war genre movie, The Wall is a psychological thriller that happens to use the Iraq War as its setting.
Former WWE superstar John Cena plays Staff Sgt. Shane Matthews. Former Avenger Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays Sgt. Allan Isaac. They’re a two-man sniper team with Cena operating the rifle and Taylor-Johnson spotting the bad guys. Both men are just normal, foul-mouthed and hardworking American soldiers.
Doug Liman–the guy who directed Swinger, Edge of Tomorrow and the first Bourne movie–is behind the camera. Dwain Worrell wrote the script and it’s been kicking around Hollywood for years. Worrell was a staff writer on Netflix’s Ironfist, but don’t let that dissuade you. I promise that The Wall is better.
Every year, Hollywood releases The Blacklist. These are all the unproduced screenplays floating around that everyone agrees are awesome but no studio is willing to produce. American Hustle, American Sniper, The Revenant and The Descendants are all Blacklist alumni. So is The Wall. It took Amazon to pony up the cash and produce the damn thing. Watch to the end and you’ll see why.
The film opens with some simple exposition. It’s 2007 and Pres. George W. Bush has told the world that the war in Iraq is over. Cut to Isaac and Matthews crouching on a rocky ridge, watching a pile of dead boys near a construction site. Six civilian contractors and two security personnel lay rotting in the sun. The soldiers are there to figure out why.
Best as they can tell, a sniper did it and it seems as if he’s left the area. After a 22-hour-long overwatch, Matthews descends to the bodies to grab their radios and figure out what happened. As soon as he’s among the dead, the sniper opens fire.
In minutes, Matthews is bleeding out in the sand from a round to the pelvis. Isaac has taken a round in his radio, his water bottle and his leg. The surviving soldier climbs behind a wall, applies a tourniquet to his leg and tries to raise command on his radio. He gets someone and talks to them for a minute before he notices the oddness of their accent and realizes the horrible truth–the sniper responsible for all this death is patched in the U.S radio network … and he’s fucking with them.
I loved The Wall. This isn’t a chest-banging gung-ho American war film nor a Jarhead-style meditation on the pointlessness of it all. This is about two men trapped on either side of a wall. They want each other dead. It’s about survival, not about heroism. As the marketing says–this isn’t war. It’s a game.
Spoilers after the trailer break.
The Wall is more like a play than a movie. Dialogue drives the plot and the action rather than the other way around. It’s only got three characters and one of them spends the bulk of the movie dying. The setting doesn’t change and it dives into dark themes most movie studios wouldn’t touch.
To be clear, this movie isn’t preachy. The Iraqi sniper doesn’t spend his time lecturing dying American soldiers about the evil of the war effort. There are shades of that, but it’s never explicit. By the end of the movie, we barely know anything about the killer or his motivations. No, the main thrust of this film is Isaac’s survival.
The marketing makes The Wall look as if it’s an action vehicle for Cena. Which makes sense, and he’s a charismatic guy following in the footsteps of Hulk Hogan and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. He’s been in a comedy and it’s time for him to transition to action films so he can become a household name.
But Cena goes down in the first 10 minutes and spends the next 40 bleeding out in the desert. When he does come to, it’s just long enough to give the audience hope before the sniper guns him down. Cena doesn’t die on his feet, like a hero, but choking on dust as he crawls toward safety. It ain’t pretty.
That’s the point. This whole movie is ugly and pessimistic. The sniper wants to kill as many people as he possibly can. That’s his whole goal. The screenwriter didn’t even give his villain the dignity of a backstory.
We never see his face, nor the inside of his nest. We have a few shots through his rifle, but that’s it. He speaks English well and can quote Edgar Allan Poe. He was, maybe, a teacher in a former life. He’s got American military equipment and weapons and he’s set up for a long wait in his nest. That’s it.
“There is no end game here,” he tells Isaac at one point. He’s been at this a long time. During a tense scene where Isaac leaves the safety of his wall to gather supplies from the dead, the U.S. soldier notices one of the security contractors has a wound on his leg exactly like his own. It’s a series of traps.
From his den, the sniper cleared out the contractors which caused the company to send out security personnel. The sniper killed the mercs, but let them live long enough to call in the U.S. military. Now, he’s let Isaac survive long enough to call in backup. All so he has a fresh slate of targets.
In a grotesque way, the sniper is the hero of The Wall. He wins in the end, and it’s his journey we know the most about. He wants a thing and he gets it. Isaac’s journey is over the minute he admits both to the sniper and himself that he carries guilt for something that happened in an earlier tour.
Isaac’s been wandering through the desert for years looking for a death he thinks he deserves. The sniper is only happy to oblige. The sniper quotes Poe at length, especially The Telltale Heart, which the film uses as a thematic reference to Isaac’s own guilt.
The sniper’s den is a gristmill meant to consume American soldiers. We watch the last scene of the movie through his eyes, as he looks down his scope at the carnage he’s created. He–or someone like him–will remain in Iraq long after the Americans are gone.
The best horror films are those where the audience doesn’t know anything about the monster. The more we know, the less scared we are. Fear of the unknown is the most powerful fear of all. The second best kind of horror movies are those where the monster wins. The Wall is both.