For a movie that is, by all appearances, a war thriller, “The Wall” has an almost anti-cinematic plot. It focuses on a soldier (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, “Nocturnal Animals”) fighting in Iraq in the late 2000s who is pinned down behind a wall and eventually engages the sniper (Laith Nakli, “24: Legacy”) trying to pick him off in a conversation over radio. That’s it. That’s the story. So much of it is reliant on performance and dialogue that it at times feels like a one man play.
This is shocking considering it comes from director Doug Liman, the man behind over-the-top action flicks like “Edge of Tomorrow” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” as well as the less excessive but still action-packed “The Bourne Identity.” Liman shows great restraint here, relying on sound more than his usual hyper-stylized editing. It may sound like an odd thing to compliment a movie on, but the use of sound in “The Wall” — the whizzing of bullets passing by, the cracking of a rifle — becomes very important to both the story and the tension. In an early scene that finds Taylor-Johnson’s Isaac dodging sniper fire, viewers learn to fear the sound of the bullets' impact even more than the report that follows it. It is this maturity that first begins to set “The Wall” apart.
What ultimately makes this an atypical war film are its Gothic and Romantic undertones. “The Wall” is heavily influenced by these genres of classic literature, especially the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, and it wears these influences on its sleeve. During the course of their conversation, Isaac and the sniper reference “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Raven” — a bird that, along with its caw, makes several appearances as the story wears on. A focus is placed on fear. Characters hold dark secrets. It may be missing a classically gothic setting, but that doesn’t make the homages in Dwain Worrell’s (“Iron Fist”) script any less clear.
It also bears saying that, for anyone with any doubt left over Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s versatility as an actor, his work in “The Wall” is further proof. Fresh off his award-winning performance in “Nocturnal Animals,” he gives a similarly animalistic turn, but driven by a will to survive and outwit his opponent rather than random acts of evil. Credit is also due to Nakli for constructing a terrifying antagonist despite never once appearing on screen.
There are a great deal of positives to “The Wall,” which makes the later scenes that undo much of the good work done previously — particularly with relation to Isaac’s character arc and the gothic stylings — all the more disappointing. It’s impossible to discuss in detail without delving into spoilers, but a certain pointlessness seems to settle over the whole affair. Earlier scenes lose their impact, and the script never quite regains its footing going forward.
That isn’t to say that “The Wall” is completely ruined by those later scenes, but the lack of any deeper resonance as it rolls to a close does make it harder to recommend. Ultimately, it’s still salvageable, though, if only by the strength of Taylor-Johnson’s performance and the uniqueness brought by Liman’s direction and the unusual influences. If you’re looking for a flashy war movie with explosions and shootouts galore, you may wish to look elsewhere. But for those who want a quieter but no less intense thriller, this is definitely one to check out.