Escape and Evasion review – hallucinatory depiction of a soldier's fractured mind
3 out of 5 stars
Mon 15 Apr 2019 12.36 AEST
Last modified on Mon 21 Oct 2019 20.56 AEDT
Josh McConville’s knife-edge performance brings psychological realism to an occasionally contrived war drama
Josh McConville delivers a tense, twitchy, vein-popping performance choc-full of rage and confusion as a PTSD-afflicted soldier in Escape and Evasion, writer/director Storm Ashwood’s highly ambitious and technically accomplished war film. Haunted by memories of a botched mission in Myanmar, from which he returned to Australia as the sole survivor, we meet Seth (McConville) as he is bleary-eyed, trembling and inconsolable, holding a gun to his head. Ashwood treats what happened in the jungle as a mystery, to be returned to piecemeal and teased out through flashbacks.
In this sense Escape and Evasion (which had its world premiere on the weekend as the closing-night feature of the Gold Coast film festival) is conceptually similar to 1983’s Goodbye, Farewell and Amen, the terrific feature-length conclusion to the television series M*A*S*H. In it, director Alan Alda elegantly explored the idea of a repressed wartime memory destroying the soul of a survivor, returning to a traumatic scene on a bus to gradually layer it with detail.
But Ashwood’s approach in execution is more like director Billy Wilder’s take on alcoholism in his 1945 classic The Lost Weekend, in which the protagonist, experiencing delirium tremens, has intense hallucinations that are depicted for the audience in vivid detail. Escape and Evasion’s Seth sees, for instance, blood appear on his hands and the bed sheets he is lying on transform into oozing mud, these dramatic visions accompanied by eardrum-perforating sound effects.
Subtle it ain’t. But given the nature of the subject, using confronting images to highlight the horrors of war and the fractured mindset of the protagonist is hardly unjustified. McConville’s excellent, head-turning, on-a-knife-edge performance helps immeasurably in grounding Escape and Evasion in psychological realism, making those dark moments resonate as something more than scary-movie style apparitions.
Less defensible, and certainly much less interesting, are Ashwood’s occasional forays into overly contrived drama. The impact of the film’s slickly realistic aesthetic (with fine work from the cinematographer Wade Muller) is reduced by screenwriting that feels too neat, too laboured. When a nosy journalist – Rebecca (Bonnie Sveen), whose brother was one of the men who died – begins asking authorities questions about what happened overseas, she is brusquely told to “let it go” in a thoroughly boilerplate interaction. Of course she does the opposite and doggedly pursues the story.
In one jungle-set moment, a grubby long-haired man appears out of nowhere to deliver hammy dialogue that derails the credibility of the scene. “Only death follows that man!” he shrieks, as if the actor delivering this hysteric performance accidentally drifted in from the set of a nearby horror flick – a movie like, for example, Ashwood’s previous feature, The School, a poorly acted B movie set in a disused psychiatric hospital.
Moments like these detract from what is, generally speaking, a credible and interesting film with compelling ideas. At the core of Escape and Evasion is the simple but profound message that soldiers are always at war – if not on the battlefield then inside themselves. It joins a small collection of Australian films and TV shows that explore the psychological effects of war through the prism of memory, including 2013’s The Railway Man and the 1981 television adaptation of Nevil Shute’s novel A Town Like Alice.
The combat scenes are well shot and impressively staged, with a visual clarity often lacking in frenetic contemporary action movies. Ashwood also integrates visual transitions that play with spatial elements in interesting ways. An open front door at the end of a hallway, for instance, morphs from revealing a view of a suburban street setting to vision of a mud and rain-soaked jungle, the director scrutinising every scene for potential thematic detail.
No special effect or visual flourish, however, compares with McConville’s uncomfortably convincing performance. The actor (whose screen credits include 1%, Down Under and the criminally under-seen comedy The Infinite Man) sets a standard that everybody else seems to aspire to. It is his tormented, woebegone face that will linger in the memory after the closing credits roll.