The Devils (1971)

The Devils (1971)

Ken Russell’s The Devils is almost more notorious for its release history than it is for the film itself. It was rated X due to its violence and sexual content, banned in several countries, and never has seen a totally uncut release in any format. The rumors of its violence and sexuality seem to be more intense than the actual violence and sexuality contained in the film, especially exacerbated by the fact that it mostly involves priests and nuns and is photographed in the grotesque style that Russell became so well-known for. But beneath the controversy is a sharp, vicious commentary on religious and political fervor, a challenge to censorship and to the controls placed on sexuality by the powers that be, and an impassioned, introspective, and occasionally satirical investigation of the religious philosophy of the time period.

The film opens in Loudon, France, during the reign of Louis XIII, where Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) has more or less taken over political control of the town following the death of its governor. Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) and Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) have agreed to begin destroying the fortifications of cities across France, ostensibly in an effort to prevent Protestant uprisings. Loudon is one of the last cities still standing with its fortifications, upheld by the power and popularity of Grandier. But Grandier has already fallen afoul of the local magistrate after impregnating Phillippe (Georgina Hale), the magistrate’s daughter, then abandoning her for the love of Madeleine (Gemma Jones). Meanwhile, in a nearby convent of Ursuline nuns, the abbess Sister Jeanne des Anges (Vanessa Redgrave) develops such lust for Grandier that she falls into jealousy when she learns he’s having a relationship with Madeleine. After Grandier declines to become the convent’s confessor, Sister Jeanne accuses the priest of demoniacally possessing her. When the rest of the nuns begin to fall prey to possession, the political and religious authorities unite to destroy Grandier.

As with pretty much any Ken Russell movie, the synopsis does not do justice to the combination of batshit insanity and vicious satire at the heart of this film. Russell’s imagery is mash of surrealism and anachronism, uniting a 1970s aesthetic of extremity with the undoubtedly bizarre nature of 17th Century France. But underneath it is a fascination with the forces, external and internal, centered on sexual expression and the repression of religion. The nuns are gripped by religious fervor and frustrated sexuality that erupts in mass hysteria after Sister Jeanne accuses Grandier of possessing them. The eruption feels less like women being crazy and more like a society that strictly controls sexual desire and expression finally breaking down under the weight of undirected sexual energy. The accusations of possession free the nuns from their repression and they are suddenly able to express all suppressed yearnings with the justification of demoniac possession. Orgies, nudity, perversion, fetishization, and the breakdown of the social order are the result of repressed needs, now deformed by strict religious and social requirements.

In the midst of the madness is an intelligent discussion about the nature of sex, desire, and religiosity. Grandier is far from innocent—he has impregnated one young woman and goes through a marriage ceremony with another—but he is no hypocrite. He claims that he is searching for God and meaning within his relationships to women, and there is a refreshing honesty in his behavior that bespeaks his kindness and his willingness to acknowledge himself as an imperfect sinner. But he also has that ability because he is a man and a priest allowed to exist in the outside world, not a cloistered nun or an aristocratic woman who must ultimately either deny sexuality, or pay the price for lust. Grandier’s tragedy is a fait accompli—he has come into conflict with Richelieu for standing up against the destruction of the walls of Loudon; he has defied both political and religious authority and shown himself to be too powerful for the powers that be. His destruction is necessary, and the Church uses the rapture of the nuns to justify it.

The Devils is often billed as a horror film, and there are certainly horrific elements to it, with a vague hint of the supernatural and more than a vague use of religious violence to achieve political ends. Russell’s style in itself gives the film a nightmarish quality, a sense that we are watching things that are larger, wilder than real life. All the actors are used brilliantly, but Reed and Redgrave display their considerable talents to the extreme. Redgrave finds sympathy and pathos in a nun warped by her society and her religion; Reed runs the gamut of emotions, but it is in Grandier’s quietest and most introspective moments that he finds the greatest depth and meaning. For all its notoriety, The Devils is an oddly serious and introspective film, grappling with deeper theological concepts than it is perhaps given credit for, in the midst of its apparent madness.

The Devils is available to stream on FilmStruck.

Hell House LLC (2015)

Hell House LLC (2015)

Found footage is a difficult subgenre to do right – at its best, it brings the viewer into a personal relationship with the horror, but when it’s bad, it becomes as boring and predictable as watching someone else’s home movies. Paranormal Activity, Ghostwatch, The Blair Witch Project, The Curse…these succeed in part because they establish a convincing framing narrative that (mostly) explains the constant presence of cameras, even past the point where most sane people would put them down. Contemporary filmmaking is even better suited to found footage horror than previous generations, given the ubiquity of smart phone cameras, CCTV, and automatic video uploads to YouTube and Facebook. But because viewers are more likely to question what a film shows them as “truth,” it’s a real pleasure to come across Hell House LLC, an entry into the found footage genre that does a great job at bringing the scares.

Hell House LLC tells the story of a group of New Yorkers who leave the city to head upstate (well, Rockland County) to create a haunted house venue at an abandoned hotel in Abaddon, New York. The framing narrative here involves a documentary film crew investigating what happened at the “Hell House” venue, when several tourists and workers were killed during the first tour of the Halloween season. The events are shrouded in mystery – the town, the police, and the officials won’t talk about what happened, and only one journalist actually got inside the hotel after the deaths. When Sara, one of the creators of Hell House, contacts the documentarians to tell her side of the story, she offers  footage taken by Hell House’s cameraman Paul, who documented the construction of Hell House for use on their website. This footage makes up the bulk of the narrative, only occasionally switching back to interviews with journalists, officials, and Sara herself.

The cleverness of the framing narrative goes beyond the documentary crew—early on, the viewer is shown a YouTube video uploaded by one of the tourists that documents the sudden breakdown of the Hell House tour. The later Hell House footage provides a lead up to the video, overlapping and then explaining, at least in part, what we see on the screen. The result constructs a visual mystery – how do we get from this abandoned hotel to the Hell House seen at the start? Who is going to survive? – that the film very gradually reveals. The film mostly avoids the use of the shaky camera as a mode of transferring horror or confusion to the viewer. While there are the usual tropes of heavy breathing, night-vision modes, and the camera being manipulated, dropped, and angled away from the horror, these are kept to a minimum prior to the denouement.

The most effective section of Hell House LLC is the simultaneous construction of the friendships among the crew, and the slow ramping up of tension that finally snaps during the final night. Alex, the founder of the Hell House concept, insists on carrying on in the haunted house construction, even when it becomes clear that there is something terribly wrong at the hotel. The film overlaps the “fake” scares of the haunted house with the “real” figures of the hotel, mixing together dummies, flashing lights, creepy noises, and the actual spirits that inhabit the hotel. It becomes difficult for either the viewer or the people within the film to decide what is a fake scare constructed for the haunted house and what is a “real” ghost. This also provides a meta-narrational commentary on the film itself – we are watching a fake documentary about the fake creation of a haunted house venue in a fake hotel, which asks the question about what the “real” scares are, and what are just the “fake” ones created by the characters. The effectiveness of the film depends on the viewer not always being certain what is really scary and what isn’t…or what’s supposed to be. It’s a smart little quirk thrown into the found footage concept, and for the most part works very well.

Hell House LLC also offers a very basic background on the haunting of the hotel and why the events of the evening have been concealed, giving just enough information to explain and tantalize, but not enough for the revelations of the hotel’s background to become silly. It’s an intelligent move—rather than attempting to offer clear explanations for the events, the film lets the footage do the exposition for itself, making excellent use of vague figures in the background, strange noises in the night, and one haunting piano riff that the viewer will hear in their nightmares.

Hell House LLC is part of a projected trilogy of films set in the Abaddon Hotel (more on that later in the month), and so sets itself up for a sequel while also rounding off the narrative within an hour and a half. While not all of its scares work perfectly, it’s a damn fine piece of found footage horror. It also has a creepy clown that puts Pennywise to shame

Hell House LLC is available to stream on Shudder.

Black KkKlansman (2018)

Black KkKlansman (2018)

With the release of Black KkKlansman, Spike Lee once again steps into his rightful place as a maker of bluntly provocative (and, incidentally, hilarious) films about race in America. The film follows the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), one of the first black police officers in Colorado Springs. Apparently on whim, Stallworth calls an advertised number for information on the KKK, posing as a white supremacist, and strikes up a rapport with the local chapter president Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold). Stallworth eventually infiltrates the local chapter with the help of his sergeant and white detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who acts as Stallworth in face to face meetings, eventually working his way all the way up to conversations with David Duke (Topher Grace) himself.

As with this year’s Sorry to Bother You, Black KkKlansman is very much about the nature of voice and the formation of identity out of voice. Ron speaks for himself – or rather, the white man he’s pretending to be – over the phone, while Flip has to speak for him in person. In one telling exchange, Ron and the police chief argue over Flip’s ability to sound like him, the chief implying that Ron’s voice must be far different from Flip’s simply because of his race. “Some speak the King’s English, some speak jive, and I happen to be fluent in both,” says Ron. But as a character, he’s not entirely comfortable in either milieu – he has difficulty matching the proper rhetoric in an initial meeting with a black student organization, and he ultimately has to teach Flip to sound more like him. The layers are multitudinous – Ron is performing as a white man, but he’s using his own voice; Flip, a white man, has to sound like a black man speaking “white.” Those separations of identity and how voice and identity coalesce is fundamental to the film – David Duke (Topher Grace) claims that he can tell simply by someone’s speech whether they are black or white. Ron is both cop and black man; not a “pig,” as his girlfriend Patrice (Laura Harrier) claims, but a cop, and also uncomfortable in his treatment at the hands of other white cops. Flip’s identity, in turn, is split between performing as Ron with the KKK, a world where he’s treated as a friend and brother, his identity as a Jewish man (which, until the job, he claims never formed much of an identity), and his personal, apparently non-racist beliefs.

Black KkKlansman situates itself where the real story occurred – in 1970s Colorado Springs. So often stories about racism in America occur either in inner cities or in the deep South; here, to a 2018 audience, we have a story in the “real America” of the Midwest, in a relatively safe liberal enclave, in which the KKK are the smiling next door neighbors. This is most clearly emphasized in the form of Connie Kendrickson (Ashlie Atkinson), the wife of a KKK member and a Midwest homemaker who becomes instrumental in the film’s final act. The result speaks clearly to white liberal America, that the people beneath the hoods are not others in some distant or backward past, but our friendly, innocuous neighbors.

Lee employs a blunt arc under which he conceals layers of characterization and complexity, drawing very clear parallels between the 1970s narrative and America in 2018. And the references he makes are not ahistorical – “America First” was indeed a rallying cry of white supremacists, and it has also been employed by Trump. David Duke himself has been a recent feature in American politics, endorsing Trump’s candidacy and speaking openly about the rise of white supremacy during the Nazi march in Charlottesville. The parallels between the contemporary moment and the events of the film are made explicit – a chilling speech by Ron’s sergeant hammers this home – but more than that, this is about the development of white supremacy in America. Posters of Richard Nixon are on the walls of a clubhouse during a KKK rally, a brief reminder that Nixon was the one to institute the “Southern strategy” and solidly identifying the formation of the modern GOP with support from white supremacists. David Duke wanted to make the KKK a viable political entity, and has done just that, normalizing that which should be abhorrent.

As with many of Lee’s works, media is as culpable in its representation of race as people themselves.  The movie opens with a sweeping Technicolor shot as a Confederate flag waves above fallen soldiers, and a pivotal scene includes the KKK chapter watching, and cheering on, Birth of a Nation, a film credited with giving new life to the KKK. David Duke references Gone with the Wind as support for his beliefs, and Ron and Patrice discuss the depiction of black people as cops and pimps in films like Shaft and Superfly. Blaxsploitation references abound in camera techniques and music. The importance of cinema and how it represents race and reinforces or comments on racial prejudice runs throughout the film, reminding us that film does indeed have power to reignite racial hatreds, and provide inspiration for revolution. Lee is giving his audience a film history lesson in American racism, in white supremacy and racial conflict, in the Black Panthers, and in the responsibility of media itself in the portrayal of both black people and the KKK.

Black KkKlansman speaks to people who already agree with its central point, which is both its strength and its weakness. It plays like a call to arms, to stand up against racism not in the abstract past but in the here and now, by emphasizing just how dangerous the KKK truly are. The white police officers and even Ron himself initially downplay the danger the KKK poses – Flip dismisses them at first as grandstanders, hicks with nothing better to do. But as the film proceeds, we see the reality of the “organization,” in the charismatic and horrifying presence of David Duke, in the KKK’s willingness to use violence and intimidation to achieve their ends, and in their complexities of racial biases, theories, and hatreds. “They aren’t The Beverly Hillbillies,” says Flip after his first meeting with the local Klan. The film runs the gamut, showing us both the stupid “hicks” and the charming, “respectable” men like Duke and the country club set. It even establishes some Klan members as apparently “normal” men, all of them with regular jobs, some of them military. The film represents the KKK as being more than just a bunch rednecks playing dress-up. They are a group of people hysterically dedicated to subjugating and then eradicating everyone they deem of a “lesser race” (here, the film avoids making this a solely black/white issue, and spends some time on depicting the Klan’s hatred of pretty much everyone not of white European descent).

Lee employs all of his considerable skill and filmmaking prowess, developing a narrative that is at once blunt and nuanced, horrifying and funny in the most unexpected ways. It shows the soul-eating nature of racism without asking us to sympathize with racists. There’s little joy to be found among the members of the Klan, all of whom seem to spend most of their free time talking about how much they hate everyone else. But Black KkKlansman pulls no punches, at one point cutting between a Klan inauguration celebration and the black student union listening to a talk by an elderly man who witnessed a friend mutilated, lynched, and burned. The images of the lynching are juxtaposed with the seething hatred of the Klan in its faux Christian pomp and circumstance, bringing home the reality of violence, the reality of hatred, the deep-seated racial divisions at the heart of America. It reminds us that, for all that they might seem ridiculous, the Klan is real and powerful and violent, a true danger, a true force for evil. And beneath those hoods are men and women that we stand next to in the grocery store, and that now sit in the White House.

Black KkKlansman opens nationwide today.

The Firemen’s Ball (1967)

The Firemen’s Ball (1967)

Milos Forman’s bizarre political comedy The Firemen’s Ball is as well-known for the controversy surrounding its release in 1967 as it is for its content. But the content shouldn’t be ignored—The Firemen’s Ball is a brilliant film, its understated comedy inherent in the events as a group of firemen throw a ball in their small town, where they plan to award their former chairman a ceremonial axe.

The Firemen’s Ball is about bureaucracy run amok, as the governing committee are unable to make such simple choices as what girls to put in a beauty contest or how to run a lottery without resorting to roundabout discussions and payola from concerned mothers, fathers, and boyfriends. As “the people” get drunker and rowdier, the committee breaks down—those tasked with guarding the lottery watch as more items disappear, while the discussions over who is to present what and when comes nearer to fisticuffs. The whole thing culminates in a ridiculous attempt at having a beauty contest in which all the contestants refuse to go onstage.

This is absurdism at its finest. The film is shot through with the darkest of Czech humor—everyone, from the committee to the people to the landscape itself is the butt of a joke, representative of petty rivalries, drunken idiocy, and smug leadership that cannot lead. Forman’s roaming camera captures faces young and old as they slowly devolve into drunkenness and competition, the disgust of young women for the group of old men trying to figure out how to judge their beauty, the palpable sense of the absurd. While the film never explicitly attacks the Communist party, it is self-evidently a condemnation of the bureaucracy, corruption, and squabbling within Czechoslovakia at the time.

The Firemen’s Ball plays like a documentary, with the camera catching the apparently unguarded moments of the crowd. Many of the actors are non-professional (most of the firemen are played by actual firemen from the town), and the humor of the film lies in even its extremity being believable—none of the slapstick elements are overplayed or come off as merely comic vignettes. As the ball breaks down into absurdity and chaos (including an actual fire), the underlying commentary lies in the ineptitude of the firemen to accomplish even the smallest tasks. The fact that it doesn’t purport to be a pure allegory (of Communism, of Czechoslovakia) means that the film extends itself to universality—it encompasses a petit bourgeois smugness and bureaucratic nonsense that would say as much about the United States or Soviet Russia as it does about Czechoslovakia.

After the release of The Firemen’s Ball, Forman left Czechoslovakia to discuss financing the film, and the Soviets invaded. The film was “banned forever,” Forman chose to remain outside the country, and The Firemen’s Ball was eventually nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar. With a scant running time of barely more than an hour, it stands up as one of the finest, funniest political allegories ever filmed and a seminal event in the Czech New Wave.

The Firemen’s Ball is available to stream on FilmStruck.

Phenomena (1985)

Phenomena (1985)

Dario Argento’s Phenomena opens with the brutal murder of a schoolgirl, somewhere in Swiss Alps, by a…well, something chained in a room in a remote cabin. Things just get weirder from there. The film mostly follows Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly), the daughter of a famous actor, who arrives in Switzerland to attend the Richard Wagner Academy for Girls (yes, really), where a bunch of violent murders have been taking place. One night, Jennifer sleepwalks and witnesses a murder, then stumbles onto the home of Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasence), a disabled etymologist with a chimpanzee helper, with whom she forms a close friendship (both the professor and the chimpanzee). McGregor discovers that Jennifer has a telepathic connection to insects and realizes that this connection might be the key to finding the killer.

Phenomena is a rare Argento film in the sense that it doesn’t spend all that much time dwelling on the visual poetry of murder. While there are the hallmarks of giallo, especially in the opening scene, the film is more interested in exploring the bizarre affinity between Jennifer and the insects than it is in focusing on the quest for the killer. And for that, it’s actually a refreshing experience. There are some excellent set pieces, including one scene where Jennifer summons the help of flies to defend her from bullies, as well as the usual giallo staples of sudden, violent deaths with bright red blood and rolling heads. But Phenomena is less soaked with atmosphere than some of Argento’s more popular works—there is the play of light and dark, but none of the flights of color and fantasy that come into movies like Tenebrae or Inferno. There’s also a heightened emphasis on characterization and dialogue, especially between McGregor, Jennifer and, um, the chimp. The music here is slightly less haunting than Suspiria, though it does emphasize Argento’s style, with bursts of head-banging rock and shrieking chords to underline apparently banal moments.

What is most surprising about Phenomena is how slow-moving and creepy it is, avoiding more explicit acts of violence in favor of building tension and character. Then the third act happens. For experienced Argento viewer, you know that his films tend to get very weird in the third act, with the build-up to the denouement usually more coherent than the actual climax. But Phenomena really does stand by itself, both for artistry and total, batshit insanity. The solution to the mystery is definitely there and it does make sense – kind of – but the sudden plunge into excess is jarring and, in its own way, curiously delightful. It should suffice to say that everything the film has introduced along the way does pay off – including an incongruous scene involving the chimp – and does so in maddest way possible.

Phenomena has been criticized for its rather limited performances and unclear resolution—and certainly Jennifer Connelly became a better actress as she grew up. Pleasence is delightful, however, and has great chemistry with the chimp, herself a very prominent player in the film. And Phenomena is no worse in terms of acting than any other Argento film—giallo is rarely known for great performances, after all.

While Suspiria and Deep Red are works of art, Phenomena feels more intensely personal, as though Argento has dropped any pretense of what’s expected of him and is simply doing what he wants. Phenomena is something like an amusement park ride that sails along pleasantly but uninterestingly, and then drops you fifty feet down. You know it’s coming, but it’s still quite a stomach-churning experience.

Phenomena is available to stream on Shudder

Downhill (1927)

Downhill (1927)

When we think of Hitchcock’s early work, we tend to focus on the thrillers, usually starting with The Lodger in 1927 and, skipping a number of films, onto movies like The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, and The Lady Vanishes. His other films from both the silent and sound eras generally get short shrift, representative, at best, of the building blocks of the Master’s career and little else. It’s rare for anyone to note the fact that Hitchcock made melodramas, adapted plays, comedies, and even a musical. And some of this inattention is because the films don’t easily fit into an auteurist model, but these films have floated around in bad public domain prints for years, their picture blurry, and sound (where there is sound) muddled. But thanks to FilmStruck and the Criterion Collection, we finally get a chance to see halfway decent prints of Hitchcock’s earliest available works, and discover that there was much more to the Master than his murderous masterpieces.

Downhill is only Hitchcock’s fifth credit as a director, and came out the same year as the far more famous The Lodger. It also stars Ivor Novello, here taking on the lead role as Roddy Berwick, a schoolboy who becomes entangled with Mabel (Annette Benson), a waitress at the school. Mabel is also having a fling with Roddy’s friend Tim Wakely (Robin Irvine), and arrives in the headmaster’s office and to accuse the wealthier Roddy of impregnating her. Roddy denies it but, knowing it’s Tim’s child, decides to take the blame. He’s promptly expelled from school and then from the home of his father Sir Thomas Berwick (Norman McKinnel), starting his “downhill” journey into poverty as he becomes an actor and later a gigolo.

On the surface, Downhill looks like a moral tale so beloved in the silent era, about avoiding fast women and loose morals. Certainly all of the hallmarks are there: we know that Mabel is a bad girl leading young men astray as she works several jobs, flirts with students, and wears far too much mascara. Roddy’s crime is not really his involvement with her, but his naiveté. He really is innocent and even honorable, at first—he refuses to expose Tim and get the latter kicked out of school. But Roddy ceases to be a victim as time goes on—after leaving home and becoming an actor to pay the bills, he comes into an inheritance from his godmother, which he promptly spends on marriage Julia (Isabel Jeans), who spends him into oblivion. His trajectory is more about his personal exploitation and naiveté than it is about any crimes he’s committed, but he’s far from innocent. He was involved with Mabel, even though he’s not the father of her child; he’s warned about Julia’s frivolity and affairs; he consistently turns to more disreputable ways of earning his money, although he never descends into crime. Roddy’s downward spiral is a version of feminine narrative, in which the girl goes from riches to rags, usually turning to prostitution. Roddy instead becomes an actor and then a gigolo, culminating in a nightmarish scene in a Parisian nightclub that should be seen as one of the finest in silent cinema.

Hitchcock’s style is very much in evidence here, especially the early influence of German Expressionism. Brief scenes, as when Roddy goes down into the Underground after being cast out from his father’s house, and again as his shadow casts across the stairs as he ascends to his apartment, recall images from Nosferatu and Metropolis, while the club scene owes a debt to The Last Laugh. There’s no doubt that this is a young filmmaker experimenting with what the camera and the frame can do, but there’s an assuredness to the images that reminds us that Hitchcock never used flourishes without a purpose. It’s all in service to the narrative, to telling a visual story through Roddy’s eyes. Most impressive is the use of POV shots, during a sequence in which Roddy sinks into delirium as he’s taken on board a ship. The camera stumbles down stairs, stares up at masts as the frame multiplies, and finally descends into hallucinogenic reveries as Roddy replays his experiences. The film largely lacks title cards, with large swathes of dialogue elided over in favor of information conveyed solely by the image. Novello’s performance likewise shows influence of Expressionism, as he casts his body against vaulted closet doors, or becomes slowly bowed as he sinks further into poverty. In such an otherwise dark narrative, it’s a pleasure to note that there’s a good bit of Hitchcockian humor on display, with visual jokes and sleight of hand that will become more developed over the course of his career.

But Downhill shouldn’t be viewed as an interesting footnote. It is deserves to be considered on its own merits, as a part of Hitchcock’s oeuvre that does not cleanly fit into the thriller model. This is a great director making a great film, not a fledgling director who will go on to great things. There’s genius here, and it belongs to Downhill.

Downhill is available to stream on FilmStruck

House 2 (Tribeca 2018)

House 2 (Tribeca 2018)

In November 2005, in Haditha, Iraq, twenty-four unarmed Iraqi civilians were shot in a small back bedroom in what would become known as “House 2.” After the deaths were brought to the attention of a Time magazine reporter, and then to the NCIS, it became clear that these deaths were not civilians caught in crossfire, or insurgents fighting with Marines, but innocent men, women, and children killed deliberately and at close range. But out of an entire team of Marine responsible for clearing houses after an IED explosion and subsequent shooting, only one soldier, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, was indicted on multiple counts of murder.

Director Michael Epstein crafts a deeply disturbing documentary with House 2, which follows Wuterich’s legal team as they prepare for his trial, the most expensive in military history. Crossing over interviews with defense attorneys, NCIS investigators, and Wuterich himself, the film pieces together a case and explains, in precise detail, what they know and don’t know about what happened in House 2. The film intercuts video from the aftermath of the shooting, taped transcripts of witness testimony, and images taken by one soldier to document what they found when they entered the house. It’s a horrifying and far-reaching chapter in the War on Terror, an expose of violence, with the  question of who killed those people, and why, at its center.

The murkiness of the case is evident from the outset—the murders weren’t investigated until six months after the fact, when it became clear that Time would run a story about the incident. The NCIS investigation was interfered with by higher command, immunities handed out to other members of the team in order to obtain their testimony against Wuterich. Wuterich himself is an enigmatic figure—he’s shown at home with his wife and children, always claiming that he doesn’t know what happened in House 2, because he can’t actually remember. His own legal team believe their client is being railroaded into taking responsibility for the murders in order to avoid a scandal similar to the My-Lai massacre. What he actually knows, or remembers, is unclear—he neither admits to committing the crime, nor does he explicitly implicate anyone else.

What does become clear over the course of House 2 is the spectacular miscarriage of military justice. There’s no doubt that the film takes a particular angle on the events—there are no interviews with prosecuting attorneys, and no representatives of Marine command, save for Wuterich himself and his defense team. This doesn’t completely skew the perception of the case, however, though I would have liked to hear something from the other side. The presence of two NCIS investigators helps to balance the narrative, as they present their accounts of how they carried out their investigations, and where they were told to stop by higher-ups and the gaps that the prosecution and the defense attempted to fill.

House 2 is an absorbing, infuriating documentary, difficult to watch. It brings the viewer close to the events with images of the murdered women and children examined in forensic detail. The investigators attempt to establish how many shooters there were, where they might have stood, how they would have committed the crimes. The film doesn’t flinch from showing the humanity of the victims, the investigators, the Marines, and the attorneys, forcing the viewer to reckon not just with the forensic evidence, but with the reality of human life purposelessly cut short.

The downside to a film being as well-put-together as House 2 is that it can occasionally come off as an entertaining thriller rather than a documentary examining a disturbing and far-reaching event in America’s military history. There are a few revelations introduced late in the film that seem to be present more for dramatic value than in the service of telling the story. But because the film makes use of contemporary footage, it seems to play out as more information comes out. Wuterich’s legal team change their approach to the case regularly, trying to reconcile contradictory evidence and the behavior of a prosecutorial team that seem to be playing by a different set of rules. What comes out is the way that military justice is manipulated and abrogated to avoid culpability for the deaths of so many innocent people.

House 2 elucidates the degree to which Iraqi lives have been dispensable in the so-called War on Terror, and the degree to which even military lives will be thrown under the bus in service to buoying a desirable narrative. But in the end, a group of unarmed women and children were murdered in their beds by Marines “clearing” a house. That is itself a scathing indictment of the War on Terror, and the atrocities still being committed in its name.

House 2 is currently at the Tribeca Film Festival.