Carnival of Carnage

War is hell. Even the Gulf War.

Three Kings

Directed by
David O. Russell

Warner Bros.

“Are we shooting?” calls a boyish American soldier (Mark Wahlberg) to distant buddies at the start of Three Kings. He stands in a flat, whitish Iraqi desert dotted with mounds. On top of one, far away, an Iraqi waves a rifle and some kind of cloth. Is he taunting the American? Appealing to him? Is he surrendering or on the verge of opening fire? Hard to tell: The light is too glaring; the man’s frantic gestures too alien. A title has informed us that it’s 1991, that the cease-fire with Iraq has just become official. “Are we still shooting people or what?” the soldier calls again. In the absence of a clear answer–of a clear anything–he raises his rifle and shoots. The soldiers reach the Iraqi as he’s hemorrhaging, a look of wonder in his dying eyes. “You shot yourself a raghead!” whoops one, but the American who fired–identified by an on-screen title as U.S. Army Sgt. Troy Barlow–recoils from his handiwork. The war is over and Barlow has just killed his first man.

That scene is like a mini Beckett farce with a cruel jet of gore for a punch line. Barlow is shooting at people he doesn’t know and can barely see for reasons that are never apparent in a place that’s as foreign as the surface of the moon. All that’s finally real is the blood. From this brilliant overture, it’s obvious that the writer-director, David O. Russell, wants to break down your defenses against cinema’s violent imagery: He’s juxtaposing farce and atrocity in ways that few American directors have dared. And he’s not stinting on the carnage, either. The movie’s most talked-about close-up shows the track of a bullet as it enters a body, plowing its way through tissue and into a liver, which releases blackish bile. (Reportedly, Russell had bullets fired into a cadaver.) No wound, the director is saying (screaming, in effect), should ever be taken for granted.

It helps that Russell is fueled by genuine outrage at that most jumbled and arm’s length of wars: the one that pretended to be about the “liberation of the people of Kuwait”; the one that ended up (once the oil wells were recaptured) rebounding on Iraqis who’d been convinced by President Bush to take up arms against Saddam Hussein. As the protagonist, Special Forces Capt. Archie Gates (a hard, brooding George Clooney) declares in his first scene, “I don’t even know what we did here.” Cynical and disgusted, Gates gets wind (so to speak) of a wild discovery: a map lodged in the rear end of an Iraqi prisoner that shows what appear to be bunkers holding loot plundered from Kuwait. Announcing that he has no moral problem stealing from Saddam what Saddam has stolen from the sheiks, he joins with Barlow, Barlow’s buddy Vig (skinny Spike Jonze, director of the upcoming Being JohnMalkovich), a game but witless redneck, and the resourceful Chief (Ice Cube) in search of the motherlode. Millions of dollars worth of gold bullion, Gates says, can be loaded into their Humvee without firing a shot, and they’ll be back at camp before lunch.

At this juncture, Three Kings seems poised to turn into a relatively straightforward genre piece–a perverse “caper” movie with a touch of Gunga Din (1939). But the surreal setting hints at dissonances, disturbing incongruities. The white light scorches every surface–it seems to be eating into people. Details of the natural world are bleached out, but artificial colors–such as the pink and green footballs the soldiers pack with explosives and lob from their speeding vehicle for sport–leap out of the screen like radioactive Christmas baubles. The action comes in jarring spasms. A cow is blown up during an exercise, and the Americans are showered with bloody chunks of beef–a harbinger of the insane slaughter to come. When Gates and company reach the village where the gold is supposed to be stashed, the Iraqi people think they’re being liberated and rejoice, pushing their babies on the “United States of Freedom.” They can’t understand why the Americans aren’t chasing away Saddam’s soldiers, whose mission, in light of the cease-fire, has shifted from fighting the American-led alliance to ruthlessly suppressing all signs of Iraqi rebellion.

T he weird juxtapositions in these scenes are the movie’s soul. Inside a bunker, a soldier uses a NordicTrack in front of a television just down the corridor from a torture chamber. Piles of cell phones, Cuisinarts, blue jeans, and gold watches sit side by side with weapons of mass destruction. The Iraqi soldiers turn machine guns on a truck that’s heading for the village, riddling its driver with bullets. When it skids into a building and overturns it doesn’t explode: Its tanks are full of milk for the starving people. Gates and his men have gone beyond the computer simulations and the TV cameras. As Russell has said, they’ve “fallen down a rabbit hole” into a place where nothing makes sense. It’s the same twilight zone that Steven Spielberg attempted to capture in Saving Private Ryan (1998). But Ryan, set in World War II, ultimately lacked Three Kings’ sense of moral chaos.

Three Kings lacks something, too, but only because its imagery is so ferociously original that Russell can’t quite find a structure worthy of it. All at once, the movie becomes a “conversion” melodrama–the kind in which an amoral, Bogartish protagonist is unable to ignore injustice and so throws in his lot with the oppressed. It’s a winning formula, but a formula all the same. Whereas the opening manages to be shocking and ironic at once, the picture’s turning point is crudely manipulative. (Don’t read this if you want to be surprised–but I do recommend you read this, because it’s not a good surprise.) A wife leaves her little daughter and howls for Saddam’s men to free her husband; a soldier pulls her away, holds a gun to her head and then, in full view of her spouse and child, blows her brains out; and the little girl throws herself on top of her mother shrieking, “Yuma! Yuma!” while the woman’s blood gushes into the sand. This shocking act recalls the climax of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), in which a prisoner is executed with similar defiance, and Russell builds to the same wordless exchange among the protagonists: Those manly looks that say, “We’re outnumbered and outgunned. We could leave now with our money. But if we do, we’ll never be able to live as men again.” But the victim in The Wild Bunch was morally compromised: He’d shot people himself for no good reason. And he didn’t have a wide-eyed little girl bearing witness to his murder.

No doubt Russell would justify the starkness of the mother’s killing by saying you can’t make a movie about the obscenity of violence without showing something so obscene that it scalds us. I don’t quarrel with his intentions. But after that sequence, a part of me shut down. Where do you go from something like that? To more horrible killings? To more absurdist comedy? The climax–in which Gates and the others decide to escort a horde of noble Iraqis (men, women, children, the elderly) to the border and are predictably converged upon by Saddam’s men, unfriendly American troops, and a CNN reporter (Nora Dunn)–isn’t bad; it just feels cheap compared to what has preceded it. In Time, Richard Schickel calls the genre structure a pretext for a “surreal essay” on the Gulf War, and he might be right. And it’s also true that a studio such as Warner Bros. would never have spent $50 million on a film that didn’t have a conventionally rabble-rousing outline and an upbeat finish. But I think those conventions diminish the movie. If I’m holding Russell to the highest standards imaginable, it’s only because his vision is that powerful.

It’s also possible that Russell is too sadistic by temperament to make a fully convincing anti-war film. He’s out to blast us. He wants to punish the characters–and the audience–for their ignorance. At the time of the Gulf War, a study showed that a majority of heavy CNN viewers (people who watched seven hours a day) who supported the action believed that Kuwait was a democracy, and the soldiers here are portrayed in a similar state of gung-ho naiveté. One of the film’s most outlandish (and effective) scenes is the torture of Barlow by an Iraqi officer (Saïd Taghmaoui) who wants to “educate” him. The session begins with a bizarre dialogue about Michael Jackson–an African-American superstar who in the Iraqi officer’s view was driven by bigotry to whiten his face and straighten his hair–and winds up with the Iraqi pouring oil down Barlow’s throat in a brutal effort to drive home the war’s real aim.

W e hate and fear the Iraqi, but when he tells Barlow that he lost his 1-year-old son to an American bomb, Russell cuts to a shot of the child in its crib as the ceiling caves in. When he asks how Barlow would feel if his wife and daughter were similarly killed, Russell cuts to a shot of the mother and child as the walls explode around them. The connections among enemy soldiers have rarely been made so palpable–or jocular. An Iraqi officer trying to escape from the smoke-filled bunker with a huge pile of blue jeans isn’t so different from the Americans lugging bullion in Louis Vuitton bags. And both sides share a reverence for Infiniti convertibles and Rolexes. Three Kings is not the first anti-war movie in which opposing soldiers have recognized themselves in one another before pulling the trigger, but it might be the first to make the point in a way that has nothing to do with liberal humanism. The movie takes the view of a mordant social scientist who recognizes that consumerism has become the true world religion.

Russell’s first two films, Spanking the Monkey (1994) and Flirting With Disaster (1996), were much smaller in scale, but both were products of the same angry sensibility. In the latter, the director used farce not to lighten the drama but to darken it, so that the slapstick debacles seemed to spring from the hero’s roiling unconscious. In Three Kings, those debacles spring from the blind desires of nations–from the collective unconscious. A war movie that opens the instant the war has ended, Three Kings is among the most pitiless autopsies ever filmed.