Not only is Doug Liman one of the most original action directors working at the moment, but he’s one of the most diverse, capable of releasing a remarkable variety of genre pieces in relatively quick succession. The Wall is his second film in 2017 following on from American Made, but it couldn’t be more different in scope and spirit, replacing the expansive, larger-than-life career of Barry Seal with what amounts to a tightly-wound chamber drama set in the dying days of the Iraq War. As troops are withdrawing, reconstruction is occurring and the last skirmishes are fading, a couple of soldiers – Sergeant Allen Isaac, layed by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Sergeant Shane Matthews, played by John Cena – have been tasked with fixing a stretch of pipeline alongside the fragmented remains of a bombed school. With nobody else appearing in the film until its final minutes, it already feels as if these two soldiers are the last remaining troops in Iraq, but the ambit shrinks even more once a rogue sniper takes out Matthews and forces Isaac to defend himself against this fragment of wall. What ensues plays as a one-man film, set in real time and in a single location, with most of the action consisting of Isaac watching and waiting for the next move from the sniper, who communicates with him through his walkie-talkie after having somehow taken control of the local radio signal, and who turns out to be the “ghost” – a legendary, American-trained sharpshooter who turned his back on the US and went rogue.
As the entire film converges around this one standoff, which feels modelled on the stand-alone scene with Ralph Fiennes in The Hurt Locker, it gradually seems as if we’re witnessing the last fragment of frontal combat – the final trench separating the early-mid 2000s from the omniscience and fluidity of global terror, along with the way in which the rise of militant terror groups programtically displaced and confounded any sense of conventional warfare. As Liman perpetually cuts between the micro-specificities of this wall – individual bricks, fragments of barbed wire, fleeting sightlines – and the amorphous threat beyond it, Isaac’s situation feels less like a theatre of the Iraq War than an inchoate memory of traditional warfare that has been jettisoned and set adrift in the midst of a diffuse global space that has already exceeded the particularities of the Iraq conflict. Not only is the “ghost” never dissociated from this space in any emphatic way, but his radio signals reveal that he is gradually circling around and converging on the wall as the film proceeds. Even the most residual notion of frontal conflict is imploded by this centrifugal motion, as Isaac is forced to continually pivot his position around the wall in order to accommodate and elude the ghost’s circumambient presence, eroding any clear sense of spatial affiliation in the process.
Insofar as this premise requires any narrative, it’s simply the narrative of Isaac performing basic, mechanical tasks in order to avoid being seen, scrutinised and shot by his sniper. A brutal shot to his leg early in the film means that he work even harder to avoid the ghost’s sightline, relying largely on his hands to dig holes, trace plans on the ground and remove and replace bricks in the wall, all the while gazing through his scope, which represents his only point of contact with the world outside his immediate environment. Under that immense pressure, Isaac’s hands and eyes become somewhat independent of each other, or are forced to work autonomously in order to block out the full implications of his scenario – a poetic prophecy of a world in which the spectacles of global terror often seem to be orchestrated to produce just this dissociation between sight and action. More specifically, The Wall seems to prophecy a movement away from terrorist gestures on the scale of September 11 to more local, contingent and unpredictable attacks – micro-events that seem to demand and deny some kind of action, both pre-emptive and recuperative, in the same breath. At its most crushing and claustrophobic, that produces something like a torture porn aesthetic, since where an older kind of film might have honed in on Isaac’s handiwork, and his ingenuity under tight conditions, here any claim to ingenuity is utterly provisional, as the ghost boxes him in until he has literally nowhere to turn, and is imprisoned by his own body.
What little dialogue exists hinges on the remote conversation between these two men, but the film is probably stronger without it, even if the sniper himself, as a figure and character, is essential to the looming doom that settles over the film in its later stages. Not only has the ghost taken over the American radio signal, but it turns out that he has been listening in on Isaac and Matthews’ conversations for some time, imbuing him with an almost supernatural prescience for what Isaac is feeling at any one moment – a prescience that comes to feel inextricable from the superhuman marksmanship that allows him to hit a leg, a radio antenna, or a water bottle from long range. By the end, the ghost has become a kind of confessor-figure, or even a teacher-figure, as it turns out the the ghost’s own school was bombed, lending this fragment of school a special significance for him. The result is a chilling insistence that American militarism – even or especially at its most civilized and efficient – is already a confession of impotence to an unseen, unheard, but omnipresent terrorist subject – and that subject haunts The Wall right until its bleak and inexorable conclusion, as Liman wrests one of the eeriest horror films (or terror films) in many years out of precisely the same militaristic bravado so beautifully interrogated and contemplated by American Made.