starring Nicholas Hoult, Logan Marshall-Green, Glen Powell, Henry Cavill
screenplay by Chris Roessner
directed by Fernando Coimbra
by Alice Stoehr Nicholas Hoult's signature expression requires that his lips be ajar and his buckteeth be visible. The English actor then furrows or flattens his brow; narrows or widens his limpid blue eyes. It's a concise look, one that makes the most of his open, boyish face. He affects it whether flirting with his professor in A Single Man or playing the bashful Beast in the X-Men movies. That barely-open mouth can suggest uncertainty and impotence. It admits that he can neither understand nor control the world around him. Hoult assumes this expression throughout his performance as PFC Matt Ocre in Sand Castle. Ocre is fresh-faced fresh meat, too tender to handle the theatre of war in which he's abruptly immersed. ("I joined the Reserves for the college money," he explains in voiceover, a detail that screenwriter Chris Roessner plucked from his own life.) The Jordanian desert stands in for Iraq in 2003 as Ocre's platoon plows through the aftermath of the American-led invasion. Hoult's joined by hunky rising stars like Glen Powell as the macho Falvy--a far cry from his work as a pretentious ladies' man in Everybody Wants Some!!--and Logan Marshall-Green as the no-nonsense sergeant. The film follows these men as they drive from one makeshift base to another. It emphasizes their scruff, their sweat, and their loud-mouthed braggadocio. The dialogue, which oozes naturalistic profanity, is thoroughly plausible, if increasingly monotonous.
An arc begins to take shape when the soldiers roll into the city of Baqubah. There, they meet Captain Syverson, played by Henry Cavill with a bushy beard and a gruff drawl. He has them entice the Iraqi locals into pitching in at a bombed-out water station. The civilians they work with are hazily characterized; Navid Negahban, who plays a benign school administrator, receives the most screentime, and even his role amounts to little more than a plot device. His countrymen appear as a mass of victims for the Americans to help or harass. If this were a western, with its heroes on horseback instead of in Humvees, then the Iraqis would be skittish townsfolk. Roessner's combat experience may have informed his storytelling, but the precepts of formula have also squashed any real-life material here into inert drama. The story's rhythms are easy to chart: explosions of violence puncture 15-minute periods of relative calm. Gunfire erupts like clockwork. Brazilian director Fernando Coimbra, whose first feature was the 2013 true-crime thriller A Wolf at the Door, stages the calm as a long procession of shot/reverse shot sequences. This is a drab film of camo, tan, and brown by day, deep blue-green by night. When it's time for action, however, the camera rouses, scrambling alongside these bullet-dodging grunts as swift cuts stitch together their respective locations. Not once but twice, the movie indulges in an aural effect where the soundtrack drops out after a bomb goes off, a clichéd means of aligning the audience with Ocre's POV.
Coimbra's approach to warfare calls to mind recent films like Denis Villeneuve's Sicario and Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty. Yet both of those CIA-centred sagas achieved greater aesthetic precision in their depictions of government-ordered bloodshed. Whereas they careened towards nihilism, Sand Castle stumbles into crude sentiment. As Ocre's shaken by one casualty after another, the film returns periodically to the image of him brooding before a morosely duct-taped bathroom mirror. It measures its tragedies by the toll they take on this greenhorn's face. His jaw stiffens with indignation. He beats a prisoner until he's wrestled away and later talks back to a superior officer, two acts of defiance laden with facile symbolism. Sand Castle ends, having come full circle, with Ocre muttering the phrase "beautiful goddamn day," his voice full of bitter irony. This resolution would be a lot more incisive if the rebuilding work that fills the film's midsection seemed less like a necessary evil--a longueur to morally justify the battle scenes bookending it. Strip away everything tedious or generic, everything that merely advances the plot, and this would just be a movie about men's bodies. The only thing left would be these actors strutting around in uniform, flaunting their military hardware and its firepower. Sand Castle might not be much of a war movie, but it's a marvellous showcase for Nicholas Hoult in fatigues.