The most remarkable thing about Yann Demange's directorial debut isn't that Roadside Attractions decided to dump it in the post-Oscars landfill. Nor is it that, just when you're sure you'd be fine to never see Unbroken's Jack O'Connell play a brutalized soldier again, you suddenly find yourself riveted by that very sight. The most remarkable thing about this urban thriller set against the backdrop of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland during the year of the title is how much watching it is like watching The Hurt Locker.
Some things never change, and, as '71 makes tragically clear, one of those things is war. Early in the film, armored vehicles roll into an occupied village and are confronted by a bloodthirsty mob. It could just as easily be an American convoy making its way down an unfriendly block in Baghdad. It just happens to be a British unit on a mission to interrogate troublemakers — insurgents, if you will — in a smoking, rubble-strewn corner of Belfast. Uniformed men rough up locals, the crowd charges the outnumbered force and, in the ensuing chaos, a lone soldier is accidentally left behind.
This, you may recall, is a situation similar to one in which Jeremy Renner's ordinance specialist briefly found himself in Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker. Unfortunately for O'Connell's Gary Hook, the experience proves anything but brief. Throughout a night that threatens to stretch on forever, the badly beaten private attempts to find his way back to his base through a maze of unfamiliar neighborhoods while eluding IRA thugs determined to make sure he doesn't get out alive.
A historical note: The French-born filmmaker achieves something astounding in his handling of the factions vying for power during this period. A less gifted director would go hog-wild with exposition, differentiating the Irish Republican Army, the even more violent Provisional Irish Republican Army, the Ulster Defence Association, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, to name a few. Demange lets the story speak for itself, with results that couldn't be less confusing.
As in The Hurt Locker, religion is at the root of the trouble. Instead of Muslims and infidels, we have Catholics and Protestants. Explosives play a pivotal role once again, and Hook befriends a local youth just as Renner's William James did. I could go on, but you get the idea: The resemblance between these wars on terror separated by nearly half a century is nothing short of stunning.
Though perhaps it shouldn't be, given that its suspense machine of a script is the work of award-winning Scottish playwright Gregory Burke. His best-known work, Black Watch, is based on interviews with members of a regiment that served in Iraq throughout 2004. Mark Boal, who wrote The Hurt Locker, was embedded as a journalist there that same year. Freaky, right?
In addition to having the Iraq War in its DNA, '71 has one edge-of-your-seat twist after another. It has convincing performances from some of Ireland and Britain's most talented character actors (seemingly half of whom appeared in last year's Calvary); a tension-heightening score by David Holmes; camerawork by Tat Radcliffe that transforms quaint hamlets into nightmare labyrinths; and, at its heart, a premise as minimal as it is electrifying — a man running for his life.
Why this prize-winning picture is opening now among cast-offs and long-shelved duds (Serena, anyone?) is beyond me. It's not likely to linger, however. If you're interested in catching the most powerful import of the season, you might want to do some running yourself.