I’m actually a big fan of single-setting films. When done right, putting the focus on characters rather than exploring different locations can make for an interesting, engaging, and emotional viewing experience. Such is the case for “The Wall”, a war thriller that sees a pair of U.S. Army soldiers pinned down by a sniper in a cat and mouse game that leaves viewers on the edge of their seats waiting to see what happens next.
“The Wall” features a very small three-person cast with Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena portraying spotter Sergeant Allen “Eyes” Isaac and sniper Staff Sergeant Shane Matthews respectively as the two respond to investigate a pipeline construction site after the “end” of the war in Iraq. After making their way onto the site Matthews is gunned down and Isaac receives his own wound, hiding behind a wall as an Iraqi sniper named Juba, played by an unseen Laith Nakli, pins down Isaac behind a deteriorating wall. What unfolds is a true cat-and-mouse game as Isaac tries to find a way to lure out his opponent while Juba taunts Isaac with personal questions, all the while gathering information for a much bigger plot.
The entirety of “The Wall” us set at the site of the pipeline construction, making the movie an experience set in a single location throughout all the action. The bulk of the story sees Sergeant Isaac trying to outsmart his cunning foe, Juba, as the two engage in conversation about their personal lives and personalities, Juba taunting Isaac over the loss of his previous spotter when he was a sniper and Isaac taunting Juba as an overconfident opponent. It’s an interesting exchange and while it makes for little action, it makes for a unique movie-going experience considering that it’s quite difficult to see either of these men as real villains in this scenario.
Isaac shows signs of PTSD and is even questioned about why he continue to fight in a war he says is “over” while Juba claims to be a former English teacher and seems to have taken is quite personally that the wall Isaac hides behind once belonged to a school. “The Wall” proves to be an engaging character study of two men from different cultures on opposite sides of a conflict trying to scare, frustrate, and outsmart each other. Neither of them prove to be “perfect” in their skills and cunning wit as Isaac is able to escape death several times despite Juba’s known experience and Juba is able to see threw some of Isaac’s attempts to distract him.
The movie is perfectly paced, showing us a buildup to the standoff and then providing us with numerous attempts by each character to escape the situation, or to prevent escape in the case of Juba. However, where the film falters is in its conclusion as the climax slowly builds to a rather rushed and unsatisfying end that drops the interesting dynamic between Isaac and Juba in favor of a more pulse pounding race against time that fails to deliver on the more “human” portrayal of both characters that had been present throughout the film.
Honestly, I have little negatives to point out about “The Wall”. While it’s closing scene is rushed and feels a bit out of touch with the rest of the film it’s a very intriguing and enjoyable look at two warriors facing off in a battle of wits and willpower with their own demons and agendas. I found myself thinking these two could be friends if it weren’t for the guns and war. The whole experience plays out like a conversation over coffee, where two people who don’t see eye to eye debate life and the ways of the world with the understanding that they won’t change each others’ perspectives, but why not enjoy the conversation all the same? It’s a solid film that takes full advantage of its setting with amazingly powerful and committed performances by Nakli, Taylor-Johnson, and even John Cena who spends most of the film unconscious but makes every moment of his dialogue and action pay off.
It may not be a film for everyone due to it’s single setting, lack of action, and slow pace, but “The Wall” is a great character piece that delivers on its promise and, in my opinion, it’s one of the best thrillers 2017 has offered so far. At only 81 minutes long, it’s totally worth the watch and it doesn’t take long to drive home its deeper elements and narrative that draws viewers in with a sense of isolation and claustrophobia with the threat of death on the other side.