Wildcat is the sort of film where strangers wake up in a room together. Often, this sort of film – a handful of actors on one set – is all about learning who these people are and why they are in the room together in the first place. Often there’s also a kick in the tail where one person turns out not to be who they say they are, or the commonality connecting everyone is suddenly revealed. Not so here.
We know almost from the outset who these people are – they’re journalist Khadija Young and a soldier called Luke, only survivors of an ambush on a convoy in Iraq, who are now locked up together in a cell. Khadija and Luke are Americans. Their captors are Iraqis and they’re keen to extract information from their prisoners about the heavily fortified compound that’s the local US base. Scant minutes in we’ve learned that Khadija might be a spy, or at least a CIA employee, a translator, maybe, using journalism as a cover. Which only doubles her jailers’ efforts to get information out of her and Luke.
On the other side is the boss, a known terrorist called Abu Khalid (Mido Hamada), plus three sidekicks who mostly don’t talk. One of them, a big lumbering guy called Hamza (Maz Siam), is the torture technician, and goes about his work the way a mechanic goes to work on a car.
The torture starts early on. Pliers, electrodes, beatings. We don’t see much of it, thankfully, though both Georgina Campbell, who plays the resourceful, smart and tactical Khadija and Luke Benward, who plays the jockish, resigned Luke, are skilled enough as actors for their characters’ fear to transmit from screen to viewer.
Thanks to Abu Ghraib and the reports that have emerged from the so-called black sites, we’re used to stories about Americans using torture. It’s unusual to get it from a different perspective – Iraqis dishing it, Americans getting it.
Writer/director Jonathan Stokes has devised this small but very efficient drama as a series of vignettes. How do Khadija or Luke go to the toilet? We don’t know. We only see them shackled, the metaphorical lights going down on one scene only to come up again and it’s the next day or some time later. We know time has passed because Khadija has yet another fingernail missing, thanks to Hamza’s pliers.
In a moodily lit room where sounds have been amplified just a touch – rattling chains, doors being unbolted, the snap of an electrode – the focus is heavily on the actors. It’s a very small cast. Georgina Campbell, Mido Hamada and Luke Benward doing most of the heavy lifting. Benward has the most thankless role, as the wounded and largely passive soldier. I did not quite buy his developing relationship with Khadija but then I don’t think Stokes is fully invested either. He’s more interested in the relationship between Khadija and her torturer.
Psychologically, how do people resist or accommodate themselves to torture? Because Campbell is so good at portraying someone who is absolutely terrified, this question shoulders its way to the front of the queue. By playing mind games with their torturers and with themselves seems to be Stokes’s conclusion. And do torturers torture out of a sense of sheer badness, or do they use an everyday rationale to justify it? Without overly burdening the film with “thinky” speeches, Stokes explores those angles too, and Hamada helps with a performance full of easy menace but with a flicker of something else going on behind those impassive features to suggest an internal debate.
What of the fact that the torturer is a handsome man and his captive is a beautiful woman? Is that in play too? Has the terrorist fallen for the American devil? And isn’t the torturer/tortured relationship in any case a sort of weird, perverted flirtation? Stokes asks all the questions and just kind of leaves them all dangling. That’s why I liked this film.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021