The front line of battle is a labyrinthine mess in Yann Demange’s ’71, a survivalist thriller that pits Jack O’Connell’s British soldier against hostile Catholic Nationalists during The Troubles in Belfast, North Ireland. When he becomes separated from his unit during a riot and chased down side streets and narrow alleys, O’Connell transforms instantly from brash recruit to desperate fugitive, and it’s impossible to tell where he’ll end up from there. On top of that, various factions crop up, making it next to impossible to know who to trust. It’s made all the more disorienting by the fact that it can be difficult to tell an Irish Protestant from an Irish Catholic until the topic comes up, but in all honesty, Demange doesn’t seem concerned by the lack of clarity. For some characters it takes more than a couple scenes to see where they’re truly coming from, and even then their ideas about what to do with O’Connell once he’s caught seem to be awfully fluid.
Disorientation is the name of the game, and O’Connell as luckless Private Gary Hook suffers miserably, continuing his masochistic attraction to physically and emotionally punishing roles. He’s cultivating a line in quietly intense characters, and even as a frightened recruit out of his element he still conveys the magnetism that keep sustaining his young career. Given his dependability it’s a shock to discover how absent he is for most of the movie. Whether he’s holed up in a latrine or recovering from a bomb blast, he proves surprisingly susceptible to injury for a protagonist, leaving large stretches of the movie to be carried by a pretty impressive ensemble cast as he nurses his injuries. Sean Harris as a snakelike Military Reaction Force captain sports a mustache that could walk alone the streets of Belfast with impunity, but paired with his wiry physique and piercing gaze, he makes for a terrifyingly unpredictable antagonist. The greatest surprise comes in the form of a pint-sized Loyalist (Corey McKinley) who carries enough clout to boss around men three times his age due to his dead father’s reputation. He’s a whirlwind of youthful energy, and the only one capable of leavening the mood when he’s starts acting beyond his years. O’Connell gladly gives up the show to McKinley, who comes to personify screenwriter Gregory Burke’s overall thesis about the perpetuation of violence through generations.
Children are at the center of everything. Kids incite the first hostilities toward Hook’s unit when they throw meat scraps and piss-filled jars at them, with some mooning thrown in to boot. A single boy sets Hook on his quest when he steals another soldier’s rifle during a riot, prompting Hook to chase him down and become stranded. During it all we suffer the knowledge that Hook cares for a younger brother back home, far from the unrest where Hook can tease him about girls and they can play football. Their relation is unclear at first, another sign of either Demange’s indifference toward establishing hard facts or his inability to communicate efficiently. Hook could be his father, he could be his brother. Either way, we know he’s the boy’s guardian, and their closeness partially explains Hook’s stupefied behavior around McKinley’s fiery little Loyalist. The adults who are actively involved in the conflict are largely shown to be calculating, cold-hearted pieces of work, and Demange shows the kids around them sponging it up while remaining bereft of any perspective, repeating the cycle of ingrained hatred that led their parents to their current state.
Lest things look too black and white, Barry Keoghan’s conflicted teenager Sean appears, pulled between a loving family and the neighborhood tough (Martin McCann) bullying him into joining the IRA. For a movie that mostly consists of shadowy figures speed walking down damp streets, Demange succeeds at showing the excruciating ethical quandaries posed to anyone struggling in a war zone. Sean and Hook, on opposite sides, both take a tertiary role in the fight, but very clearly don’t have their hearts in it. The same goes for the Catholic doctor and his daughter who bring an injured Hook into their home. They take him in against their better judgment, but not against their moral code. The ones who keep the fight going are those who are fully invested in it, and recruitment methods resort to brainwashing and threats against one’s family. Demange offers no easy answers, and while Hook’s fate is most certainly to either die or retreat back to England, for people like Sean, resolution is an impossibility, one that forces Demange to abandon the hellhole of a wartorn Belfast once Hook’s story is complete.