Netflix original feature Sand Castle is less about war than about what war means for someone stuck making sense of it. Screenwriter Chris Roessner was that someone, after he enlisted in the Reserves principally to nab G.I. Bill benefits for college. His essence and moral centering is converted to screen as Pvt. Matt Ocre, played by Nicholas Hoult (X-Men), as he attempts to tackle the colossus of war’s meaning.
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“What really got me was the journey of the character, the struggle to find the motivation to be there,” director Fernando Coimbra tells the Daily Dot about his English-language debut. “I was really impressed by the authenticity of the story. The way Chris wrote the characters, it seems very real to me.”
The film, which landed Friday on Netflix, commences with a desperate Ocre slamming a Humvee door in order to break his hand. The doctor writes it off as a scratch.
Led by Sgt. Harper (Logan Marshall-Green), Ocre and his band of infantry ragamuffins are off to Baghdad. The supporting cast includes Glen Powell (Everybody Wants Some!!) as the wild-card trooper we’re used to seeing in war movies.
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After a scene of American domination via a possibly unnecessary Apache helicopter drop, Ocre’s squad is sent to meet with a Special Forces captain (Henry Cavill) in a rural village, and give out water as they help fix a pumping station. The thing is, of course, the Americans bombed and disabled it. For that, and other war-specific atrocities, the Iraqis would rather not deal with the soldiers, setting forth a destructive tilt-a-whirl dynamic that should be familiar to anyone mildly familiar with America’s involvement in the Middle East.
“It’s not said in the movie, but reading about the Iraq War, it feels like the goal was really to make a mess,” says Coimbra.
He is incorrect, which says a few things about why Coimbra’s film works (ambiguity) and doesn’t (difficulty staying on task when there’s guns to shoot and things to blow up). His protagonist does hit on an important emotion: While Hoult’s performance goes flat on occasion, his uncertainty throughout provides a decent trunk for the film.
The film’s problem is that there is too much bang-bang war, and not enough of the literal and emotional politics of war. Cavill’s amazing beard aside, his character lacks direction or motivation. He clashes with Hoult’s team and sets back their collective efforts to win the hearts and minds of the locals, but it’s unclear what his paranoia toward locals is a reflection of.
As Roessner told the Army Times about his deployment in Iraq circa 2003: “War is the realization that people have been hurt and people have been killed and at best, you’ve maybe moved the giant ship a half of a degree. But that’s kind of the job.”
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The film’s climax isn’t even the predictable explosion you see coming a mile away. It’s the scene where Hoult’s character is being discharged, as soldiers jump in pools and eat prepared foods inside of a country they’ve helped leave hungry and thirsty.