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Triage (2009)

I guess I can see why Triage went direct-to-DVD. It’s a very good film, but it’s relentlessly dour and unpleasant. As has been typical of Colin Farrell’s choices over the past few years, he’s challenging himself by playing a difficult character in a difficult film that I found difficult to watch. Still, it’s a lot less oppressive and self-conscious than something like 21 Grams, so shuffling it off to DVD seems like kind of a cruel punishment for a film that’s significantly more passionate than that exercise in ACTING.

Farrell plays Mark Walsh, a cynical photojournalist documenting the Iraqis’ anti-Kurdish attacks in 1988 Kurdistan. His best friend, David (Jamie Sives), has accompanied him, and they’re both a bit shocked at the medical treatment there. Among other things, the triage doctor (Branko Djuric) shoots those he can’t save. Mercy killings, but it’s still very disturbing. David abandons Mark to get home in time for the birth of his first child, and Mark is seriously injured in a mortar attack. He’s taken to the Kurdish triage unit, and it’s only luck that keeps them from mercy-killing him. Although severely battered, he has no serious bone fractures. As Mark recuperates, he begins to develop an understanding of the doctor’s methods. This does not stop him from selling his story as soon as he returns to Dublin.

Once he’s home in Dublin, Mark finds a new set of problems. His lover, Elena (Paz Vega), finds him cold and distant, but she doesn’t know why. He tells her his injuries came from a nasty fall into a river. Also, a knee injury seems to debilitate him despite the lack of any physical reason for it to worsen. Before long, a doctor finds a piece of shrapnel stuck in his brain, and Elena realizes Mark must have lied about how he got his injuries. A neurologist informs her that Mark may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and that may be causing his psychosomatic leg problems. Elena brings her psychiatrist father, Joaquín Morales (Christopher Lee), from Spain to treat Mark. She and Joaquin have a contentious relationship—he was responsible for treating soldiers under Franco’s regime, which in her mind makes him a traitor to Spain.

The central question of the film is: What happened to David? He left before Mark, but he never made it back to Dublin. His wife, Diane (Kelly Reilly), is deeply concerned, and Mark’s shady behavior makes everyone around him think he’s hiding something. Is he, or is he just suffering as a result of his injuries? The answer to the question isn’t terribly surprising, but it’s not exactly meant to be, either. Like a less histrionic Salvador, the film is meant to be a brooding, gut-wrenching examination of a photojournalist in wartime. It succeeds, thanks in large part to Farrell’s quietly fierce performance and Lee’s smugly pedantic take on Joaquín.

Writer/director Danis Tanović first made a name for himself with the phenomenal 2001 film No Man’s Land. Triage sometimes shares that film’s dark humor, but mostly Tanović keeps the tone grim and uncomfortable. It may not be easy to watch, but it matches Mark’s dire outlook on things.

If nothing else, Triage deserved a small theatrical run to give it some exposure to critics and/or awards committees. Instead, it’s a forgotten film that will have a hard time developing a cult audience because, frankly, cult audiences tend not to flock to brutal wartime character studies. Still, it’s well worth checking out on DVD if you’re the type to respond to this sort of film.

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