Overview: A group of soldiers attempt to repair and protect the water supply of a small Iraqi village. Netflix; 2017; Rated R; 113 minutes.
Not Much New Here: Sand Castle is a film about war that never quite breaks new ground. It falls firmly in the “War is Hell” subgenre and makes no effort to stretch beyond it. The film begins with a promising opening line from Matt Ocre (Nicholas Hoult): “A war story can’t be true unless it’s got some shame attached to it.” With this beginning, we might hope for a new kind of war tale, or at least a storyline involving shame that really hits home. The main plot, that of repairing the water supply of the small Iraqi village, is promising and unique. Unfortunately, the film never lives up to its opening salvo or the promise of its setup.
Intimacy of the Troop: Director Fernando Coimbra works particularly well in intimate scenes between Ocre and the members of his troop. Despite limited opportunities for interaction, we feel the connection between these men even when it is clouded by the ribbing Ocre constantly receives. Glen Powell, in particular, stands out from the instant he appears on screen. Although the caricature of the wise-cracking soldier has been seen many times, his presence makes these scenes natural and even fun in a film that sorely needs more moments of levity. Additionally, the film is unafraid to make his character complex, as shown by his insensitive remarks about the Iraqi villagers. In reaction to this, and in a similar vein as many protagonists in war films, Ocre separates himself physically and emotionally. Hoult achieves this both by his limited emotional expression and his refusal to enjoy the camaraderie of the team. Instead of connecting the audience to Ocre, this only serves to lessen the emotional impact when supporting characters are killed off. We expect this is in a war film, but without the connection, these moments ring hollow.
Special Forces Superhero: Henry Cavill, in easily the most enjoyable performance in the film, is a welcome jolt of energy as Captain Syverson, a Special Forces Commander who works his way into the story late in the film. Cavill, who in previous films has struggled to make a memorable impact, does so here within moments. Nearly unrecognizable due to a shaved head and a beard, he plays a character who is difficult to like but impossible not to respect. He is purposefully placed in a role diametrically opposed to Ocre and his team. As the grizzled veteran, he must determine if he can trust these inexperienced new soldiers and what roles they will play. His relationship with the team is well-constructed and leads to a few well-earned surprises in the third act.
Frustration and Powerlessness: Sand Castle is a war film filled with tropes, which is unfortunate, because it only serves to distance us from the tribulations of these soldiers. The script, penned by Chris Roessner and based on his own military experience, makes several leaps in plot and expects us to follow along. Luckily, the difficulty of working within a complicated and different culture puts us in the mindset of soldiers without any real power over their situation. We feel for their lack of information and empathize with their frustration at being deployed to an unfamiliar place where they misunderstand the culture constantly. Nicholas Hoult’s performance reaches its heights in these moments. His confusion and even anger feels grounded and understandable as the soldier who is “just trying to do his job” in difficult circumstances.
Overall: Sand Castle is a standard war film that struggles to release itself from the confines of its genre. Solid supporting performances from Glen Powell and Henry Cavill, as well as attempting to tackle complicated cultural differences give us a glimpse of what an improved film could look like from director Fernando Coimbra, but the lack of cohesion and adherence to standard military battle drama weakens its emotional effect.
Featured Image: Netflix