It's frankly surprising that in today's political climate a movie called The Wall has nothing to do with Mexico and illegal immigrants. No, the wall that figures centrally in this high-tension, highly contained war thriller directed by Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow) is in the sun-bleached desert of remotest Iraq. Behind the remains of this wall, an American soldier named "Eyes" (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) gets trapped in a psychological battle with an unseen Iraqi sniper (voiced by Laith Nakli). It opens Friday at Valley View, Crocker Park and Willoughby Commons.
The majority of the 90-minute film finds Taylor-Johnson crawling and wincing and spitting in pain as his tormentor plies him for intelligence and teases him for fun. The sniper is so accurate that even as Eyes bobbed and weaved toward the wall, bullets managed to puncture his water bottle (to dehydrate him), break the antenna on his radio (to isolate him) and destroy his knee (to hobble him). It's the first in a series of increasingly implausible plot points.
The sniper, called "Juba," wants this prey all for himself. He wants to talk to Eyes, to learn about his family and his hometown, and to figure out why he came to Iraq. From time to time, we're reminded of Juba's ultimate aims: "When this is all over I'm going to rip your eyes out," he says. "I'm going to cut out your tongue and staple it to your chest." (Efforts are briefly made to humanize Juba, but we're not at all encouraged to consider him a local savior or a daring vigilante: He's pretty much evil to the core.)
The Wall begins well enough. Eyes and Sgt. Shane Matthews (John Cena) are on a recon mission, scoping out the scene of a slaughter, where Iraqi contractors had been building a pipeline before they were gunned down. The two-man American team has been watching the tableau for 20 hours with no movement. Eyes suspects the kills were the work of "a pro." Matthews scoffs at that assessment, but when he finally walks toward the scene, he discovers that the victims were all indeed sniped, killed with single headshots. This makes for a taut setup and it creates some pretty good suspense right off the bat.
But after Eyes finds refuge behind the wall, it's a two-man show, and the immediate question becomes how on earth will a feature-length film evolve from this basic premise? Like other films in this claustrophobic and, crucially, low-budget thriller subgenre (Buried comes to mind), the film can at times feel like a thought experiment. But it's passably entertaining, with one or two surprises along the way. The lack of plausibility, one suspects, comes with the territory.