‘Civil War’ Review: Alex Garland Tears America Apart, Counting on Audiences to Prevent His Worst-Case Horror Show

The press are the good guys, but also kind of the bad guys, in Alex Garland’s virtuosic “Civil War,” a jarring ground-level account of what a near-future disunification of the United States might look like. Intended as a wake-up call, the long-fuse thriller — which starts slow and snowballs to a jaw-dropping raid on Washington, D.C. — embeds viewers alongside a dedicated team of journalists making their way to the capitol while the country unravels around them. It’s the most upsetting dystopian vision yet from the sci-fi brain who killed off all of London for the zombie uprising depicted in “28 Days Later,” and one that can’t be easily consumed as entertainment. A literal shock to the system, “Civil War” is designed to be divisive.

Led by veteran war photographer Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst), the film’s tight crew of journalists are total pros. They represent a troubling form of detachment, essential to their job, yet practically counter-human in their capacity not to take sides, which serves as an indictment unto itself. News outlets thrive on conflict — it sells papers, drives ratings — and have largely been responsible for spreading fear around the possibility of a second American civil war. Garland doesn’t care how it happened. His script skips past why the conflict started, beyond the questionable notion that Texas and California both seceded and subsequently joined forces against a power-hungry three-term President (Nick Offerman).

Though it looks like another entry in the popular postapocalyptic thriller genre, make no mistake: “Civil War” depicts the apocalypse itself. The country’s in full meltdown, Americans have turned on one another, and the only people permitted to move freely through active-fire spaces are the ones with “PRESS” stenciled on their flak jackets. Garland establishes the chaos early on, as Lee is covering a mob scene where civilians reduced to refugees in their own country clamor for water. Suddenly, a woman runs in waving an American flag, a backpack full of explosives strapped to her chest.

Like the coffee-shop explosion in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Children of Men,” the vérité-style blast puts us on edge — though the wider world might never witness it, were it not for Lee, who picks up her camera and starts documenting the carnage. Moments earlier, she’d pulled a young admirer, Jessie (“Priscilla” star Cailee Spaeny), to safety, effectively saving the life of this wet-behind-the-ears wannabe. It’s Jessie goal to be a war photographer, too, though she snaps on black-and-white film — a young artiste to Lee’s run-and-gun shooter. The ambitious newcomer talks her way into Lee’s next mission, driving with reporter Joel (Walter Moura) and veteran political reporter Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) to D.C. to interview the President.

Jessie sees herself in the girl, even if she doesn’t see herself in her own reflection anymore. In one scene, after narrowly surviving a shootout, the foursome roll into a town that seems untouched by war. They step into a shop, where Lee tries on a dress, studying herself in the mirror. The movie is that mirror, showing America the risks of in-fighting and the potential costs of division. “Civil War” serves as a cautionary tale, repurposing the sort of imagery audiences have seen in overseas war zones — dissidents hanging from bridges, lime-covered corpses piled into mass graves — and applying them to familiar, all-American settings.

It’s startling, to say the least. Still, Lee has seen worse in her life (early on, decompressing in her bath, she cycles through a sampling of arm’s-length horrors she’s documented over her career, including a man lit on fire). If ever she knew empathy, Lee now seems desensitized beyond repair. When Jessie asks her idol what she’d do if Jessie were dying, Lee stares back coldly and says, “What do you think?” She’d get the shot, of course.

Audiences have never seen Dunst like this. She looked rough in “Power of the Dog,” but here, covering conflicts has drained the essence right out of her. (The star appeared radiant at the film’s SXSW premiere, underscoring the transformation she undertook for a role where resilience and plain, adrenaline-fueled instinct override basic self-care.) Garland gives the character several opportunities to reconnect with her humanity, even as this tense, increasingly brutal road trip pushes them deeper into the proverbial heart of darkness. Most of the movie takes place in broad daylight, which isn’t at all the aesthetic audiences expect from a modern-day war movie, which typically use strategic filters to make everything look gritty.

“Civil War” may unfold in a parallel dimension (the Cal-Texan team-up blurs whether it’s blue or red states running this uprising), but it looks a lot like the America we know. The press is expected not to take sides. At times, amid the confusion, neither they nor we can’t even distinguish between rebels and patriots — as in a scene at an outdoor Winter Wonderland attraction, where soldiers try to take out a sniper. In that situation, it hardly matters which team he’s on. Later, Jessie Plemons shows up wearing a camo uniform and heart-shaped sunglasses, pointing his gun at the unarmed journalists. “What kind of American are you?” he demands of each of them. In today’s political climate, self-proclaimed patriots pose similar questions, with equally intimidating subtext.

By this point in “Civil War,” the film has tilted toward full-blown horror. Indeed, the final stretch feels more like something out of Stephen King (“The Mist” or “The Stand”) than any war movie that’s come before, as the small band of journalists accompanies the Western Front for their big push on D.C. Although Garland showed Offerman preparing a speech as President early on, he seeded doubts in the man’s sincerity by intercutting real-world uprisings with the commander in chief’s speech. Even so, surely no American wants to see what comes next, as Jessie and Lee accompany troops trying to shoot their way into the White House.

Earlier on, the battles were intense but somehow theoretical. This climactic siege looks terrifying, albeit wildly different from the kind of warfare we’ve witnessed in Ukraine lately, as if Garland miscalculated how such a showdown might unfold. Earlier, Jessie tended to freeze up under fire, but now she appears fearless, while Lee is wracked by anxiety attacks. Rather than spoil the critical decisions each of them makes as the situation escalates beyond anything “Has Fallen” hero Gerard Butler could salvage, consider the implications: At this point in the film, embedded alongside the insurrectionists, they’re fueled more by a totally distorted sense of duty. The media they work for fomented the conflict they’re covering, and now, their sole focus is to get the shot — or the story, as the case may be.

Anyone who saw Garland’s previous film, the A24-backed freak-out “Men,” knows the director doesn’t shy away from pushing things to their most nauseating extreme. “Civil War” is no different. The director trades in triggering images, not just of real-time war crimes, but also of those who bring us those images. The script is maddeningly vague about the cause of this conflict — though one need only live in the present to imagine what sparked it — and while that ambiguity is certainly thought-provoking, it means there’s no way to defuse what we’re watching, no room for negotiation.

Sight unseen, “Civil War” has been criticized for exploiting tensions in an election year, when in fact, it’s meant to illustrate the futility of “sides.” Garland’s the last person to suggest a group hug. His movie leaves us shaken, while raising the question that quelled the L.A. riots: Can we all get along?

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