As sharply engineered as a reel of razor wire, Shariff Korver’s “Do Not Hesitate” is not the first film to expose the sheer lunacy of sending callow, heavily armed young men, versed in a machismo that sees sensitivity as weakness, into hostile territory and expecting everything to work out fine. But Korver sets his film, which is the Dutch international Oscar selection, apart from the “Jarheads” and the “Full Metal Jackets” of the world with the precision of its craft and the narrowness of its focus. This time, the story is told as though through the sights of a sniper rifle.
Directly in the crosshairs, there’s Erik (major breakout Joes Brauers), a personable, level-headed young soldier and avid amateur drummer, who has been deployed to the Middle East on a peacekeeping mission. When their tricked-out transport vehicle stalls on a remote mountain path, Erik and a small squad are left to keep guard until relief helicopters, expected the following day, can arrive. While they set up a rudimentary camp under the parching sun, Erik sees movement in a nearby bush and alerts the lookout, Thomas (Tobias Kersloot), who opens fire. In the stillness after ceasefire is called, they move in warily, only to discover the source of the movement to be a goat, now bleeding out from multiple gunshots.
They’re upbraided by Paula (Anna Keuning), their no-nonsense commanding officer, but the incident seems innocuous enough until a local boy (a brilliant, live-wire Omar Alwan), ferocious and not the slightest bit intimidated by these foreign military personnel, shows up screaming insults and curses at them in Arabic. They decipher that he’s claiming the goat was his, but when he’s offered a $50 note in compensation for it, he pockets the money and then demands more, spitting and snatching and snarling at them.
Still, he’s little more than an aggravation, until Paula is ordered by radio to take half of the team to investigate a nearby lookout point, and Erik is left in charge of the vehicle with only hotheaded Thomas and the rather dull-witted Roy (Spencer Bogaert) as companions. The boy returns, but the trio’s squadmates do not, nor do the helicopters arrive. And once their dwindling supplies are stolen, heat, thirst and clashing personalities soon strain the arid, sinister atmosphere to paranoid snapping point.
The intelligence of Korver’s approach, working from a fine, pared-back screenplay by Jolein Laarman, is to allow his excellent ensemble to breathe life into characters who are collectively the very embodiment of immaturity and inexperience, and individually representative of various conflicting ideologies. Half the time the three guys are bonding fiercely, engaging in highly physical roughhousing, their bodies fit and smooth as unused department store mannequins. The rest of the time is spent in surly silence or at each other’s throats. Thomas sums up their divergent approaches — which are demonstrated in the way each treats the local boy — cynically but not inaccurately: He is the outspoken, action-oriented pragmatist; Roy is the paycheck soldier; and Erik, Thomas insists with maximum derision, is the idealist.
And as initially played by Brauers with quiet good humor and thoughtfulness, Erik really does seem like the smartest and the most decent of the three, not participating in Thomas’ more vulgar horseplay, and trying to befriend the boy with protein bars and extra helpings of food. In the dry, bleachy sunlight, Nadim Carlsen’s calmly watchful camera makes Erik glow with a soft, youthful sweetness. With his close-shaven hair and peachy clear skin, he can look almost babyish in some lights; then like a skull in others.
Hard-edged as the film is, especially in terms of Ruben van der Hammen’s efficient, laconic editing, there is still a heady sense of being trapped inside the fraying, bewildered psychologies of its protagonists. Ella van der Woude and Juho Nurmela’s nervy score sometimes goes entirely impressionistic, as when percussion on the soundtrack mimics Erik’s impatient fingers drumming on the side of the van’s gun turret. In dazzlingly crisp images, boxed in to a narrow aspect ratio and threaded together in increasingly jagged, unnerving rhythms, the tight, taut storyline proceeds inexorably toward its awful pivot point and beyond.
This is a loss-of-innocence story, but we do not just bear witness to the end of something good, but to the birth of something bad, something corrupt and repressive and inarticulate that will live on long after, as the lasting consequence of a terrible deed that is just as significant as the deed itself. The term “war crime” summons up enormous, dramatic evil, and “Do Not Hesitate” is small in scale. But it’s convincing in suggesting that perhaps this is the way war crimes really happen: with the smallest, ugliest of bangs and the longest, most drawn out of whimpers.