Edward Zwick’s latest film about segregation (though don’t they all seem to be about it in one way or another?) is as powerful a film as he’s ever created. With vengeful and angered energy, Defiance is a fast-paced co-war/co-drama World War II piece.
With most of Zwick’s films, the major issues lay within the text; he tries to force compassion rather than allowing the breathing room needed to actually comprehend the tragedies and sympathize accordingly. However, this is somewhat different than the rest of his filmography. This is due in whole to the fact it’s about antisemitism – every film about antisemitism always has that startling affect on viewers because we know it’s realistic, and therefore emotionally troubling.
Defiance – like many revenge thrillers – is about a man, Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig) and his brothers, Zus (Liev Schrieber) and Asael (Jamie Bell) taking the law into his own hands after their father was murdered. Of course, it isn’t as simple as most revenge plots, due to that minor German invasion problem. However, once the revenge plot unfolds there is a much more life affirming approach to the film. Defiance is all about getting revenge on those who’ve scorned you and those you love, but Tuvia says it best “Our revenge is living”. For those going in hoping for a non-stop war-against-the-Nazi’s slugfest, you will be sorely disappointed. However, if you expect a very tense, humanistic portrayal of people that were sought after as animals, then prepare yourself for a great film that should fulfill, if not, surpass your expectations.
Starting off as a mafia film would, but continuing, only to becoming a snowballing effect with a scared community isn’t an easy transition, but it fleshes out in an appropriate, but too frantic a way to ever grasp completely… until it becomes overwhelming. A flaw and a success; both somewhat vapid and somewhat beautiful – it reaches both ends of a spectrum one would hope no film would mount.
As a communal piece, it flourishes with the limited capacity the film allowed. It’s brief and wondrous – especially the way many of the sequences are shot. Marriage ceremonies, housing creating and friendship all develop attractively, but the flaws are plentiful.
It’s apparent that Zwick’s direction was more focused on the revenge aspect rather than the harmonic community, even though he does attempt to give it its own plot, his passion was very obviously on the aggressive side of the film. If he’d expanded the film to a three-hour running time (using the additional time to explore the foundations of what made the community a community and such), Defiance could’ve had it all.
There was a lot of early buzz on Liev Schrieber’s performance for the supporting category this year. Unfortunately for him, the early love never developed into something substantial. Nevertheless, he still dominates the film and is mesmerizing in his role. For the majority of the film he is a co-lead with Daniel Craig, but the film takes a turn and there is much less of him than one would want. He plays Zus, the passionate brother that takes matters into his own hands in the most literal way. A very difficult performance that Liev nails to the T and that I admire on many levels.
The other roles with substantial screen time are Tuvia and Asael, Zus’ brothers. Though Tuvia is the sole lead, Daniel Craig’s interpretation of the pertinent Tuvia is a minor headache. His Bulgarian accent isn’t focused and distracts from the subtle prowess of his performance. Craig’s emotions are focused, but they deteriorate in little areas. Unlike Jamie Bell, who appears to get stronger with every passing scene. His character develops the most out of everyone, but due to lack of balanced writing, most of it is done off screen. Perhaps the supporting performance of the year that will go completely unnoticed, but Bell’s performance is quite glaring.
On the whole, the three performances balance each other out enthusiastically, if not in an uncreative way. Zus is the strong one; Asael is the compassionate one; Tuvia is the blend. Unfortunately, bare characterization takes its toll on the film in retrospect.
All in all, Defiance is a strong film on all fronts, but would have benefited vastly from more disciplined writing and direction. ***½/****