"Casualties of War" (1989)

Rating: R:18
Genre: Drama, War
Directed By: Brian DePalma
Written By: David Rabe
Runtime: 109 minutes
Studio: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Private. Max Eriksson (Michael J. Fox) is stationed in Vietnam under Sergeant. Tony Meserve (Sean Penn). Though Meserve saves Eriksson's life during battle, the two men clash when the callous senior officer orders the abduction of Than Thi Oanh (Thuy Thu Le), a young Vietnamese woman, to be used as a sex slave. When Eriksson refuses to take part in the abuse of Oanh, tensions between him, Meserve and the rest of the unit rise.

This is an incredibly tough film to watch. But an equally powerful one that’s well worth doing so. This is not for the faint-hearted!! The event(s) which take place are crude, vulgar and barbaric. They're not nice. There is no sugar coating it. As a rule, I shy away from war films. It’s the one genre I can’t watch. And given how brutal this one is, it’s a testament to the those who made it that I stuck it out to the end and even went back to watch it again – even if sleep became a challenge the subsequent night...

Since watching it, I have a very morbid fascination with the whole concept of the film, the way it’s written and then executed. I haven’t watched something quite like it. It makes you think. A lot. And ask questions both about yourself and of the world around us. The subjects of right and wrong, peer-pressure, and morals are all prominent throughout. And at the heart of it all is the question – What would you have done? 

This was a far cry from the usual types of films we see Michael J Fox in I’ll tell you. This is one of the reasons I was curious to watch it. And he is nothing short of phenomenal. Frankly stated, the man is a chameleon. Here he inhabits about the only character with any kind of integrity and morals. Hence it is from his point of view that the events taking place unfold. He witnesses the crime committed, stands up for what he believes in no matter how much pressure is forced upon him by the rest of his peers.  What’s interesting about his character is that as horrified as he was by their intent and actions, he didn’t actually do a whole lot to stop them. He refused to be a part of it, but he wasn’t able to stop them. He watched them take her, he watched them mistreat her, and listened to them rape her. Yet we can sit here shouting ‘should-haves’ and ‘would-haves’ at the screen during these moments, but in actuality the question ‘What would you have done in that situation’ comes to mind and thought about thoroughly enough, the answer might be more ambiguous than initially thought.

His character’s morals were foreshadowed in the first portion of the film, before the girl was kidnapped, as we saw him interacting with the inhabitants of the area in which they were staying. The other soldiers barely dignified them as people and discouraged him from speaking to them – foreshadowing their morals and background as well. The fact that we found out he was married with a daughter probably made his witnessing of the rape more arresting. He becomes determined to bring his fellow soldiers to justice.

Sean Penn is kind of scary in this movie actually. Another exceptional if not also raw performance. The ring-leader of the brutality carried out, his character is sort of interesting too. I can’t imagine what state his head could possibly in for him to never show any shred of reservations towards the act that he carried out. To even think up something like that. But the thing about him is he is just a 20-something year old kid forced out into this senseless situation, witnessing and partaking in all this violence. He is supposed to be a novice sergeant and is at this stage drunk with the power his position thrusts upon him. On top of this, he witnessed a good friend of his being killed in front of him and I have come to think that this among the previous facts, had a lot to do with his decline in morals. It reminds me of Salim in Slumdog Millionaire after he witnessed his mother being killed in front of him. He never forgave the world and held it and everyone in it almost accountable for what happened. In a similar way he showed little to no regard for other humans as people, least of all Latika, after that moment. Of course, much of his crimes happened out of circumstance, while Sean Penn’s character here went out of his way to find a girl, kidnap her, bring her back, rape her and ultimately kill her. The fact that this is in fact based on true events makes the whole thing more harrowing. 

Whatever about Sean Penn’s character’s state of mind, it’s the other clowns that went along with him that I find just as baffling. And for them to explicitly declare that it a genius idea. John C Reilly’s character gave me the impression that the buses don’t always go where he lives but that’s entirely beside the point. John Leguizamo’s character was another that stood out to me. He seemed to possess more moral standing than the others. He did show hesitation and even declared to Erikson that he wanted him to back him up in not going through with the rape. However, when push came to shove he was unable to take his stand and gave in to the peer pressure of taking part in it anyway. When you compare him to Erikson, who maintained his disgust right to the end, the need to be able to stand up for yourself and do what you think is right, hits home all the more. And I think if nothing else, having a message like that so strongly and effectively portrayed in this film, makes it a success. 

The rape and kidnapping scenes were very hard to watch. Watching them on my laptop, I had to ultimately do so without earphones in so I couldn’t hear the sound while it was going on. Her screaming. Her facial expressions. - Harrowing. The actress, Thuy Thu Le, gave another remarkably haunting performance in the film. It’s not something that could be forgotten in a hurry. I had nightmares following the first time I watched this film. I shouldn’t have been surprised by how far they went with those scenes. They showed little and a lot at the same time. While seeing her being lifted and hauled, sometimes by the hair or the neck, onto the table and these men clambering on top of her was horrific, in some ways just seeing Michael J Fox’s expression while only hearing what was going on in the background was worse. The power of imagination…  

I found the cinematography quite impressive. There were quite a few shots I found myself thinking how great they looked. 

The soundtrack by Ennio Morricone is something to listen to as well. Brings out each scene so much. 

Do not watch this film before going to bed. It is irrelevant how thick-skinned you might consider yourself to be – you'd be hard pressed not to feel even a little traumatised after it. What happens is barbaric and this film will stay in your head long after viewing it, and it will give you nightmares. That being said, it is not something that you should go without watching. In spite of the subject matter, it is an very impressive film in my opinion.