The hotel isn’t haunted but the guest is in “War Story,” an unusually sober, serious-minded American indie about a war photographer (Catherine Keener) who retreats from view following the death of a colleague in the war zone. Anchored by Keener’s understated, psychologically acute performance, director Mark Jackson’s spare, quietly powerful sophomore feature demonstrates an impressive control of mood and tone and the ability to tell a story largely without words. Critical kudos should be plentiful for this IFC day-and-date release (which premiered at Sundance), though the grim subject matter will prove a challenge in the crowded arthouse marketplace.
As he did in his striking 2011 debut pic, “Without” (which unfolded entirely in and around an isolated house on a remote Pacific Northwest island), Jackson here favors claustrophobic spaces and a traumatized protagonist who only gradually reveals herself to us. After a brief scene showing her fleeing from a mob of reporters into a waiting car, Keener’s Lee is next seen arriving at a hotel in a small Sicilian town, checking into the room she had once before, and closing the blackout shutters — literally and symbolically sealing herself off from the outside world. Though it’s never made explicit (the way most movies would feel obliged to do), it’s implied that Lee previously stayed here in the company of her fallen colleague, Mark, with whom she may have been more than just professionally involved.
And for much of “War Story,” Lee — and Jackson’s patient, observant camera — remain confined to the hotel and even to the four walls of this room, which becomes a kind of hyperbaric chamber where Lee can decompress on her own schedule, ignoring the phone calls from concerned friends and colleagues that implore her to return to New York. We don’t need more than that: Jackson (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Kristin Gore) makes compelling drama out of closely observed human behavior, and he has a powerful ally in Keener, who can express more in a few unassuming gestures than many actors can in pages of dialogue. Lee is certainly akin to the flinty, wised-up women Keener has played often in the past, but with a deeper, inarticulate sadness that comes through in the way she lies down on a bed, rearranges the furniture in her room, or looks at a large bruise on her back in the bathroom mirror (she examines it quizzically, as if it belonged to someone else, knowing that she has sustained a far greater shrapnel blast to her soul).
When Lee finally does venture out into the streets, it’s liberating for her and us — the movie relaxes some of its queasy tension. There, she casually chats up a Tunisian rug seller, takes some clandestine snapshots of the detainees at a Guantanamo-like military base (which are promptly confiscated by the police), and begins to follow a pregnant young Arab woman who reminds her of a girl she photographed years earlier in war-torn Lybia. The woman, called Hafsia (and played by the excellent Hafsia Herzi, from “The Secret of the Grain”), isn’t the same one from Lee’s past, but she comes with her own tragic history, and Lee feels herself compelled to help her in her efforts to secure an abortion and emigrate to France.
There is every reason to take pause at the introduction of Hafsia, which in most Hollywood movies — even most indie movies — would signal the start of a predictable catharsis for these two damaged women who find in each other the strength to carry on blah, blah, blah. But Jackson has too much respect for his characters, and for an audience that understands the harsh realities of the world, to proffer such bunk. His touch is compassionate but cool, like the characters themselves — a feeling further echoed in the exquisitely composed, lucid handheld camerawork of “Frozen River” d.p. Reed Morano. And though Lee and Hafsia do forge a hesitant bond, there is nothing in the film to suggest that this will bring them any kind of closure, while everything suggests that we are fundamentally alone in the world despite the occasional kindness of strangers.
“War Story” so rarely puts a foot wrong that, when it does, it’s especially jarring. That’s mostly the case with the long, late-third-act encounter between Lee and another photographer from her past who was also her lover. He’s played by Ben Kingsley in a fussy, studied performance that’s entirely out of sync with the rest of the movie’s carefully cultivated naturalism, and even when Jackson tries to minimize Kingsley’s impact by shooting his entire entrance in an extreme wide shot, you can still spot his tics and mannerisms from a mile away.
The fault isn’t entirely the actor’s: He’s been saddled with the one role in “War Story” that feels less like an actual person than a mouthpiece on hand to declaim a series of ideas (about the addictive nature of combat photography, the danger of getting too close to one’s colleagues, etc.) that have already been conveyed by any one of Keener’s anguished gazes. In a movie that generally makes its points by showing rather than telling, Kingsley’s is the one character you wish would just shut up.