Toward the end of Brian De Palma's Redacted, a pierced and tattooed antiwar protester hisses into the camera, "You don't see the My Lai massacre in the movies because the truths of that fascist orgy are just too hellish for even liberal Hollywood to cop to." This is the director's backhanded way of complimenting himself. You see, in 1989, a decade after Apocalypse Now and Coming Home and The Deer Hunter, De Palma (who had been detained in the interim directing films about cross-dressing slashers and power-drilled ingénues) at last offered his own bold take on Vietnam in Casualties of War, which focused on a My Lai-like atrocity in which American G.I.s raped and murdered an innocent Vietnamese girl. Take that, queasy liberal Hollywood.
Now, De Palma offers his measured commentary on another unpopular war with Redacted, a film in which American marines ... rape and murder an innocent Iraqi girl. Grant De Palma this much: At least he did not wait until 14 years after hostilities concluded to pull his catch-all war metaphor from the dark cupboard of his psyche.
But grant him nothing else. As anyone familiar with De Palma's rapidly declining oeuvre might have anticipated, Redacted is crude, exploitative, and politically simple-minded. Harder to predict given the subject matter is that it is also, for its first half at least, remarkably tedious.
Redacted's signature gimmick is that it is, in theory, told entirely through "found" materials: home movies taken by one of the American soldiers; excerpts from a French documentary; newscasts on an Arab network; security-camera footage at the U.S. base; embedded video on a jihadi web site; etc. It's easy to see the possibilities inherent in such a structure--for withholding and releasing information, for offering conflicting versions of the truth--but De Palma chooses not to take advantage of them. His narrative is linear and undisputed. Rather than use the assembled visual artifacts to make his story more sophisticated, he uses them to disguise the story's extreme simplicity: A squad of marines manning a checkpoint in Samarra grow disillusioned and dehumanized by the violences they see and commit. Shortly after their beloved master sergeant (Ty Jones) is killed by an IED, two of them decide to break into an Iraqi house and rape a 15-year-old girl who lives there. Prior to the rape, they murder the girl's family; following it, they kill the girl and burn her body.
The film divides neatly into two halves, with this atrocity at the center. The first 45 minutes is buildup, and to call it slow would be to insult inertia. Apart from the death of the master sergeant and another brief, violent encounter, little happens: The soldiers bicker and shoot the breeze; the mechanics of the checkpoint are explained and demonstrated. The very mundanity of the footage seems intended to sell us on the film's verisimilitude, and to some degree it succeeds.