Writer/director Jake Mahaffy’s “WAR” is essentially a critic-proof film: if you don’t like it, those who did will inevitably claim you didn’t “get it.” I have to admit, I didn’t really like the film. However, I suspect it has more to do with the nonexistent plot and jarring audio track than lack of core understanding.
Shot in black and white with a camera that Mahaffy was often forced to hand-crank when he couldn’t afford to replace the motor, “WAR” follows three loosely intertwined characters (an alcoholic door-to-door preacher, a depressed farmer, and a somewhat deranged junkman) as they go about their daily activities. Connecting the three is the farmer’s son, who roams the desolate countryside with his faithful dog, engaging in mock air battles.
Each character is suffering from their own particular brand of mental illness, and frequent voice-over allows us access into their troubled psyches. By the end, all have managed to come to terms, on some level, with their demons.
Plot isn’t always necessary, especially when one is attempting to produce work of a more symbolic nature, but it helps. Mahaffy’s world may be untouched or left behind by modern technology – as the sporadic evangelical radio broadcasts punctuating to action occasionally remind us – yet given how obnoxious most of us find such programs, one wonders why anyone would repeatedly subject their audience to them. The sense of discomfort created helps build the atmosphere of alienation and isolation, but it also annoys.
Visually, “WAR” has a unique look that recalls both 19th century photography and early impressionistic cinema. The techniques used in making the film create a series of arresting images that do their best to get the audience involved. But, again, the lack of any coherent narrative structure plus the frequent radio broadcasts and use of industrial machinery sounds only serves to push us away. Mahaffy obviously is a director with something to say, I only wish he’d chosen a more lucid method in which to get his message across.