Yann Demange’s gut-wrenchingly tense ’71 provides a snapshot of Northern Ireland’s Troubles that is neither didactic nor exploitative. More impressively, its structure and plot convey the universal aspects of any intractable conflict or prolonged war, particularly the way in which youth take part—or, more accurately, get used. The all-too-familiar dynamic at play is perhaps most explicitly expressed when the British army is described as “rich cunts telling dumb cunts to kill poor cunts.”
Private Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) leaves his idyllic but dead-end hometown in Derbyshire, undergoes basic training, and is then shipped off to the roughest part of Belfast, a city at once familiar and strange to the troops (at one point an officer reminds his new recruits that they’re not abroad). During a botched routine operation, Hook becomes separated from his squad and is beset on all sides—even by fellow British Army elements—as he wanders in and out of enemy territory while trying to get back to base.
The harrowing violence and subterfuge this hapless squaddie encounters along the way are intensified by David Holmes’s rumbling score, its sampled real-world sounds and thrumming guitar blurring the line between off-screen sound and nondiegetic music. As in Starred Up, O’Connell is a vigorously physical presence: his largely wordless performance sustains the vulnerability and fear that animate the imperatives of the survival instinct. Hopefully his powerful talent won’t be co-opted by the next blockbuster franchise.