We've seen the landscape of "'71" before -- blown-out architecture, rubble-strewn streets, an atmosphere where poison seems to hang permanently in the air and the universal sentiment is dread. Mostly, we've seen this landscape in post-apocalyptic sci-fi horror movies. In "'71," the locale is Belfast.
British TV director Yann Demange makes a spectacular and even heroic debut with "'71," which concerns a British soldier lost beyond enemy lines during the Irish Troubles. It's spectacular because of the honesty of the city he creates and the performance he gets out of the wunderkind Jack O'Connell ("Unbroken"). And it's heroic because of the way he resists taking sides in one of the worst conflicts of the 20th century and the way his daringly unadorned narrative is allowed to careen through the Irish streets like an unexploded car bomb.
Gary Hook (O'Connell) is barely out of boot camp when he and his platoon are shipped to Northern Ireland, where the Catholic section of Belfast has become a fire zone, the more militant Provisional IRA is busy breaking away from its parent organization with the aim of upping the bloodshed and the British military is inflicting brutality everywhere it can. The young soldiers understand nothing about what's going on and can't even keep straight who's on what side -- viewers will share their confusion -- but during their first afternoon, Gary sees a comrade shot through the face, gets separated from his group, abandoned, chased through the streets and caught up in a pub bombing. His night has just begun. "'71" may be a period piece of sorts, but Demange's twitchy, kinetic shooting style, his bloodless palette and the itchy energy of the entire film is very contemporary, as well as nervously electric.