Ben Wheatley Produced Thriller 'Tank 432' Raises Many Questions, Provides Few Answers [Review]

MONTREAL — When a film is cited as an example of British independent cinema, one normally anticipates it having some recognizable affinity with the tradition of kitchen sink realism. Certainly, there is a relevant psychological dimension to Nick Gillespie’s “Tank 432,” which received its World Premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival. However, the more obvious link —especially to the world-famous, genre-literate Fantasia audience — is to the work of prolific cult director Ben Wheatley, who conveniently serves as co-producer on “Tank 432.” This Wheatley-esque quality is found in Gillespie’s willingness to find inspiration in other, more esoteric strains of British filmmaking, such as “The Wicker Man” or the films of Alan Clarke (recently rehabilitated in a mammoth home-video effort on the part of the British Film Institute). The end result is ostensibly a war film with horror, sci-fi and psychological thriller elements, beginning and ending in media res and raising far more questions than it answers.

The plot of “Tank 432” is relatively skeletal; the group of soldiers and their two prisoners in orange jumpsuits find themselves in a rural landscape, pursued by a sinister figure in a gas mask until they are forced to seek refuge in — you guessed it — a tank. Narrative details come slow and in a fog of confusion as key information is withheld only to be doled out at key moments, if at all: who the captives are, who (or what) is the aggressor and exactly what the military conflict is and this unit’s specific mission.

The most obvious clue that the film is meant to be taking place in the future, perhaps a post-apocalyptic one, is the locale. Even if “Tank 432” draws convenient parallels to contemporary battlefield ethics through overtly masculine behavior and the treatment of prisoners of war, this is either down the road or, in homage to Brit dystopian classic “It Happened Here,” a parallel (perhaps Brexit-ravaged) United Kingdom. That even this is left obscure speaks to the air of ambiguity that is sustained over the course of the movie. The audience is only offered as much insight to the context of the film as can be provided in the short distance between the woods, an industrial site, a tank in a field and an 80-odd-minute runtime.

The soldiers themselves are certainly stock types: morally torn Reeves (Rupert Evans), gruff leader Smith (Gordon Kennedy), medic and token female soldier Karlsson (Deirdre Mullins) and scenery-chewer Capper (Wheatley regular Michael Smiley). They also have with them their “cargo,” two hooded prisoners (the gender reveal of them projects an air of misogyny onto the film) and they later add a hysterical young woman (Alex Rose March), discovered in a shipping container. All of these characters may as well be acting out roles in a play, and “Tank 432” could easily be reimagined for the stage; casting more memorable actors there wouldn’t be much of a challenge.

Tank 432The largest barrier taking the film from screen-to-stage would be Gillespie’s atmospheric style which, if not unprecedented, comes the closest to realizing his ambition of “being experimental and trying new things,” as he articulated in his introduction to the movie. The film’s reprised mood setting images — the screen filling with a red liquid, close-ups of blooming flowers, cigarettes igniting — serve as short-hand for cinematic poetry and bring the film closer to its psychological instability.

More important is the sound design, with off-screen gunfire and eerie noises driving the characters to seek refuge in the eponymous tank. More than a cheap (budgetary) trick played on the audience, Gillespie uses the sonic landscape to encourage the viewer to question the substance of the film’s reality. As might be guessed, the creature of the piece is largely a formal construction realized through editing and sound. As they first glimpse from a distance, the soldiers seemed to be stalked by an unstoppable opponent in a gas mask with the indication that it may not be alone. As the noose tightens and the heroes (those that remain, anyway) are trapped in the tank and left to parse out their circumstance, the figure is given a much more frightening close-up through the war machine’s viewfinder. Certainly this selective deployment is meant to maintain a certain level of psychological tension, but it is unfortunate that this is the only opportunity the film takes to revel in its creature design.

The most instinctual measure of the success of “Tank 432” is how satisfying the inevitable twist is. A handful of nagging questions — who is the monster(s), what is the significance of the “cargo” and how did the woman find herself in a box on an abandoned industrial site — build expectations as the minutes pass. In this regard, the film’s conclusion is neither too surprising nor is does it necessarily betray the bread-crumb trail that Gillespie has laid. Even some of the more inane behavior up to that point (keep an eye on Karlsson, who seems to solve every medical issue with the same inoculation) plays into the denouement.

That said, if the film’s climax comes off as thematically clear — an outgrowth of the tension heretofore developed — it otherwise leaves an aftertaste of slightness. The film, with its largely unrealized context, would in retrospect play better a half-hour shorter as an episode of an anthology TV series, and likely better serve director Gillespie’s career ambitions. On this scale, “Tank 432” is most likely to end up as debris on the VOD battlefield. [C+]

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