The other drone-pilot drama in Toronto this year, buried in the festival’s hit-and-miss new Platform competition section, “Full Contact” will be seen by a tiny fraction of the audience who express interest in the relatively accessible “Eye in the Sky,” but that’s probably just as Dutch director David Verbeek intended it. Featuring expressionless French thesp (and Claire Denis regular) Gregoire Colin as Lt. Ivan Delphine, a cool-as-ice Gallic dude inexplicably recruited to oversee drone strikes for the American Army, the taxing moral drama imagines how the mostly-inscrutable Ivan reacts to the fact that he was responsible for mistaking a Muslim boarding school for an Al Qaeda training facility. What the character doesn’t express in words Verbeek illustrates via punishingly obvious metaphor as Ivan replays the incident in his increasingly troubled mind.
As modern warfare evolves in such a way that trained soldiers can strike and kill faceless enemies from half a world away, artists are well within their rights to question the ethics of these changes. Drone advocates would argue that this new technology protects the lives of American servicemen, who can now do their killing from the comfort of air-conditioned bunkers somewhere in the Nevada desert. Critics, on the other hand, can’t abide the fact that fates are being decided from such a far remove, evidently unaware (or else unwilling to consider) that innocents also die every day in face-to-face combat. War was also hell in “All Quiet on the Western Front” — and “The Iliad” so long before it — back when soldiers looked the complete strangers they murdered directly in the eyes.
At any rate, given the videogame-like ease with which adversaries can now be eliminated from afar, drone-based warfare makes an attractive subject for armchair moralists such as Andrew Niccol, who dramatized a pilot’s psychological unraveling in last year’s Ethan Hawke starrer “Good Kill.” While similarly short-sighted, that film gave eloquent voice to many of the same mental challenges Ivan faces in “Full Contact.” Basically, his crisis boils down to the fact that while following orders, he took out a boys’ school, seen as an innocuous burst of dust on his monitor so many miles away.
No question, this is an awful mistake, and now Ivan will have to live with it. Verbeek intends for this film to raise profound philosophical questions, but it’s virtually impossible to get past even the most basic logistical ones: Who is Ivan anyway, and what is this serial-killer expressionless French weirdo doing in the American Army? What is his interest in local stripper Cinderella (“American Horror Story’s” Lizzie Brochere), if not sexual, and why does he lie and tell her that he’s impotent?
In an early scene, Ivan studies his screen silently while a mosquito lands on his skin, mere inches from his trigger finger. The guy’s either a creep, a cold-blooded predator or both, which might explain his affinity for a pet tarantula repeatedly seen in closeup. (Frank van den Eeden’s cool widescreen lensing and Tindersticks keyboardist David Boulter’s ultra-minimalist synth score keep the film’s pulse on deep freeze.) Though vaguely enigmatic, these details are narratively inadequate, giving audiences too little to go on and even less reason to engage as the movie takes the increasingly taxing path of plunging into Ivan’s subconscious.
Roughly midway through, the movie abruptly abandons its Nevada reality and reawakens in Ivan’s head, as he emerges naked from the ocean onto a rocky island. (It is about this time that festival audiences started to walk out.) While not immediately clear, the idea seems to be that damned by technology, the character must start over, crawling from the primordial sea and learning to exist on his own. “I don’t need forgiveness,” he says, “I just need to be reborn.”
Ivan catches shellfish. He bonds with a dog. He makes a loincloth and stumbles around in a dark cave. After awhile of this, he eventually crosses over a small crest to see those he struck dead by drone playing football in the desert sand. Then the film jumps again, this time with Ivan infiltrating the training group he’d been tasked with eliminating. Now Ivan must kill them again, this time using a rifle. Is this sufficient to clear his conscience? Evidently not, for Ivan reappears in a boxing gym, facing off against faraway target Al Zaim (Slimane Dazi) in the ring. By this point, we get it: hand-to-hand “full contact” is the total opposite of the remote-controlled drone approach, but surely this was something the inventors of the bomb, the cannonball and the good, old-fashioned arrow grappled with back in the day.