[10 October 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The genre film, by its very nature, is a bit of a cinematic chameleon. It can function as humor, social commentary, political diatribe, and in rare cases, sobering human tragedy. Coated in the usual celluloid garment of horror and/or science fiction, it takes talent and determination to traverse its pitfall-laden path. Ten years ago, Daniel Myrick made movie history of sorts by releasing his first person POV frightmare The Blair Witch Project. Along with collaborator Eduardo Sanchez, he created a night terror that functioned as a documentary, a pseudo-realistic look at fear as it happened, and a full blown web phenomenon. A critical and commercial ‘event’, the filmmaker retreated for a while, unsure of his next move. Now, almost a decade later, he’s returned with a fine film entitled The Objective (new to DVD from IFC Films). And once again, he has taken the standard scary movie and tweaked it with something different - a little speculative scope.
CIA agent Benjamin Keyes has been sent back to Afghanistan, a country he left ten years before, to track an unusual signature on a satellite image. It’s been one month since the horrible events of 9/11, and the US government wants to make sure that some rogue members of the Taliban aren’t hiding a loose nuke up in the desert mountains. Seeking a former source in a remote village, Keyes takes a highly specialized group of soldiers along on the mission. They include no nonsense Chief Warrant Officer Hamer, Sergeants Cole and Sadler, and Master Sergeant Tanner. They also bring on a local, Abdul, as their guide. Once out in the field, they find little relief from the ongoing battle. After an ambush leaves them injured and short on supplies, Hamer demands they return to base. But Keyes is unrelenting. He has a tip that what he is looking for is locked in Afghanistan’s notorious Hill of Bones, a sacred site that might also turn out to be this regiment’s final resting place.
The Objective is a classic suspense thriller. It plays with the audience, giving it only the information it needs to follow the occasionally confounding plotline. It provides simply drawn characters, crystal clear motivations, an environment that’s both alien and unfriendly in nature, and a finale which shines an intriguing new light on everything we’ve experienced before. Myrick, taking a noted turn toward a more mainstream motion picture dynamic here, delivers on the promise inherent in the set up. The narrative is mission oriented, and the intrinsic nature of such a storyline helps smooth over rough patches of pacing, scripting, and occasional directorial indulgences. Myrick makes some mistakes here and there, but we forgive the flaws, thanks in part to our desire to see the events come to a climax.
And it’s an interesting journey along the way. Working with an accomplished cast that really disappear into their roles, we find ourselves face to face with the hostile Afghan wasteland, and endless need for water and supplies, and a strange set of lights that seem to be following our military men. During these seemingly sedate establishing scenes, The Objective does something very sly. It establishes the conflicts and desperation that will come to define the latter part of the action. Even the minor military scenes, US armed forces fighting unseen enemies with rocket launchers and an unshakable resolve, add to the tension. Before long, Myrick has us shifting toward the edge of our seat, anticipation over what will come next filling our head with visions of death and dread.
That The Objective fails to fully deliver on said promise is one of its few weak points. Clearly, because of its micro-budget and aesthetic limitations (small cast, insular concept) Myrick cannot completely explore the ideas he’s working with. The whole CIA/UFO angle is underdeveloped, left to a series of sensationalized buzzwords. Similarly, we are dealing with a post-9/11 scenario with the war in Afghanistan only a few weeks old. Yet everything about the military operation screams “been there/done that.” Finally, the acting can be hit or miss. Jon Huerta and Matthew Anderson are very good as suspicious army men, while lead Jonas Ball earns more than a few missteps with his gravitas. Still, the script by Myrick, Mark A. Patton, and Wesley Clark Jr. (yes, the General’s son) is solid and even surprising at times.
Indeed, there’s another angle available, one that merits consideration especially in light of the actions being depicted. One could easily see The Objective as an indirect commentary on our cultural hubris and lack of understanding when it comes to our “enemy” in the Middle East. The US soldiers see diplomacy in a handful of chocolate bars, yet revert to stereotypical responses whenever their Islamic allies let them down. All engagement is “shoot first, never question ever” and once they are lost in unfriendly terrain, the camouflage comes off completely. Myrick may not have intended to make a statement about how America undermines its own efforts via a lack of consideration, sensitivity, and basic common sense. Outside of anything supernatural or beyond this world, The Objective seems intent on being critical of our nation’s inflated opinion of our own international import.
Some of this intent is discussed as part of the content on the recently released DVD from IFC Films. Myrick is on hand for both a marvelous Making-of and an insightful post-Tribeca Q&A. Both times, he confirms his desire to put politics into the film while finding a pleasant balance between various “otherworldly” elements. Director of Photography Stephanie Martin is also on hand to add her two cents, discussing the difficult shoot and the decisions on how to best render the more “mysterious” facets of the storyline. With a wonderful transfer and a lot of post-production detail, the digital package helps support The Objective‘s subtext.
Still, it’s the shivers that count, and while Myrick may not make our spine tingle like he did back in the late ‘90s (though this critic personally loathes The Blair Witch Project), The Objective is still an impressive piece of work. It never tries to do too much and keeps within its carefully controlled elements until the last act histrionics take over. Even then, the final beat is so satisfying, so ambiguous and ambitious that it makes the whole experience seem that much more special and worthwhile. It’s hard staying relevant after onli-nation declares you and your so-called “classic” a one-hit wonder. Yet Daniel Myrick has actually made three other films since leaving the unfriendly confines of Burkittsville (The Strand, Believers, and Solstice). With The Objective as yet another example of his growth as a director, it’s clear his early success was not a fluke. This is one filmmaker who can spin the genre into any shape he wants, and come out triumphant.