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Angelina Jolie's Shockingly Good "In the Land of Blood and Honey"

Reviews
by Caryn James
December 20, 2011 9:35 AM
15 Comments
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For years, it has been easy to dismiss Angelina Jolie as an extremely beautiful flake. Even her work for humanitarian causes could seem like the image-burnishing, manic-y upside of her earlier, darker bad-girls days. Not anymore. In the Land Of Blood and Honey, which she wrote and directed, is a surprising triumph in so many ways. I have to say, I completely underestimated her.

The film is not some celebrity vanity project, but an astute, dramatically gripping work set against the horrors of the Bosnian War. More than a war story, it is even more about how sex and power intersect with global politics.  And if you’ve read any of the grumbling about the plot  – a romance between a Muslim woman and the Serbian soldier who is also her captor -  you’ll be relieved to find that the film is deeply feminist. Of all the atrocities committed during the Bosnian conflict, Jolie chose to focus on the sexual violence against women.

It’s impossible to separate the film from its starry director. This grim story with a no-name cast might never have been made without her clout behind it. But from the time the film begins, we are immersed in a such fully realized world that we can forget who brought it to the screen in the first place.

For all it ambition, In the Land of Blood and Honey is decidedly, deliberately mainstream, though. Jolie brings all her commercial instincts to this artistic project, expertly balancing the fast-paced action of war with a sense of character.  At the start, we see the Serbian Danijel (Goran Kostic) and the Muslim Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) dancing together at a club, when a fierce explosion tears the room, and their lives, apart. The war begins, and soon Ajla and her sister, the single mother of a baby, are rounded up by Serbian soldiers and sent to an isolated prison camp.

These early scenes are among the most horrifying. The next time Danijel and Ajla meet, he is about to rape her -  part of the assembly line of Serbian soldiers attacking their prisoners - until he recognizes her. He becomes her protector; at times he actually seems gentle and concerned. She becomes devoted to him. But this is no Romeo and Juliet story about lovers from warring families. Their attachment is less obvious and far less straightforward than it seems. Jolie never gives us access to their private thoughts, and so keeps us off-guard, wondering what the relationship is really about. It’s impossible to discuss that question without giving away too much, but there is a big reveal and a stunner of an ending.

Throughout, Jolie is shrewd enough to let the characters and their relationship carry the weightier issues; the film never becomes a political lecture. When Danijel says of the Serbian “ethnic cleaning” that “It’s politics, not murder,” and Ajla argues, “It’s murder for political gain,” that’s one of the few scenes in which the script articulates its heavier themes. More often we see Danijel insisting to his father, a ruthless Serbian general, that he is devoted to their cause, while we’re left to wonder: is he lying to his father, or Ajla, or himself?

There are some problems with the script, which relies on movie-ready coincidences. Characters get lost and circle back to each so often, by the end  you may think there were no more than a dozen people in the war. That kind of melodrama undermines the deeper, genuine drama. But to quibble with that is to say that Jolie’s film is so good, you wish it were that much better.

Shot in Budapest, the film is visually precise and evocative. Dean Semler’s cinematography (he shot Road Warrior among many others) and Jon Hutman’s production design create a sand-colored world of stone and rubble, yet convey a sense of the civilization that rubble has replaced.

Jolie, of course, has the resources to surround herself with great advice. But not every star director has the sense and modesty to take it. Whatever her next move, Jolie has transformed herself into a serious, accomplished filmmaker. No flake could do that.

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15 Comments

  • dsag | January 9, 2012 7:12 AMReply

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  • I knew it... | January 3, 2012 7:28 PMReply

    Congrats, another box office flop for Angie !

  • Baileysirish | January 2, 2012 4:54 PMReply

    Flake: to bail out of something, to break a contract, to be unreliable. Really Caryn James? That describes you, way more than Angelina Jolie. Is/was that your perception of her? If so, it's great that you've had a change of heart/mind after being so vicious towards her in the past, because admitting that was take away, and even more bizarrely, inferring others had long been in agreement, would have earned you mass double-takes, and loud 'Say What?!' explanations en masse worldwide. Because I believe most people, even her harshest, and most bitter, irrational enemies would say the opposite. You dont get on Gallup's Most Admired & Most Influential, 6-7 years in a row, you typically are't honored with commendations by the UN, or invited to be members of the Council on Foreign Relations by Presidents, and Senators, when perceived as a 'flake.' If you still choose to dismiss the many organizations, other notable people in various fields, and their consistent, long-time praise, as well as the worldwide polls and surveys, consistently saying she's been, for the better part of 10 years an effective, influential advocate for those less fortunate around the world....how about the simple fact that she's been equally dedicated as a humanitarian, on the ground and around the world for almost a decade. No one disputes that, so in what way does that scream 'flake,' to you? To be a flake, you need demonstrative proof. Unless you're intent on using it as 'slur,' to infer that though she appears dedicated and hardworking, and has proved that continously for years, on the field, putting her money, sweat and tears where her mouth is, because YOU, caryn james, have been paid or encouraged to slam her personally, you continue to imply, FALSELY, that the perception is the opposite; that she really hasn't been dedicated all this time at all, mindreader that you are. It's quite clever cruelty that - akin to asking someone, 'when did you stopbeating your wife?' Or, accusing someone of 'emotional' infidelity - if its not true, there's no way to really ever disprove. Telling humanitarians, or anyone with very good intentions, that they REALLY don't mean it, is fairly nasty. It's not unusual for the rancid bitter hateful detractors of Jolie's either. In other words Caryn James, her fans have long had your number, even if Jolie isnt even aware of you. Our only guess is that the entities that once encouraged your burning Jolie at the stake, must not be all that influential in your world any more, so youve switched tactics. Maybe one day you can right a real piece on how that works, what industry coverage is really driven by (vindictive lying pr flacks, granting access and greasing palms for smear jobs?) i would pay to read that stuff. This stuff you're writing now, its not as vicious as it used to be, but again, explaining your past hit jobs on the science fictionalized preposterous lie, that jolie is perceived as 'flaky,' is almost as nutty as saying the same about Hilary Clinton - that, "for years, it's been easy to dismiss Hilary Clinton as an underachieving stay at home spouse." Seriously, it's that much of a head scratcher. I've read one piece of yours before on Jolie, many years ago, it was a deliberate smear job. For a well know Jolie hater such as yourself to be even somewhat complimentary of her film, now, it must be close to a masterpiece...or you have a new boss, telling you to change tactics.

  • max | December 22, 2011 4:12 PMReply

    ahahaha

  • hhroom | December 20, 2011 6:36 PMReply

    In view of the large number of celebrities, children of celebrities and others in and out of the movie business who appear to do perfectly credible work as big budget movie directors the first time out, it might be more appropriate to speculate why so many succeed, rather than marvel that yet another has. You don't, for example, see many "first time violinists", who are current or former movie stars turn up in Carnegie Hall, and none so far has turned in an acclaimed literary novel. Nor do they distinguish themselves as film editors or DPs. But directing multi-millionaire productions, they do just dandy. I can't imagine why....

  • JAN | December 21, 2011 10:29 AM

    Well there's also Ben and Casey Afleck, Sophia Coppola, and Ron Howard. And if you recall, Kevin Costner did pretty well the first time ou. And we're not even talking about the dozens and dozens of kids who inherited Dad's opportunities and contacts. These days Jason Reitman would top that list, but there are many others. The failures of Madonna and Spacey would seem to have far more to do with choice of material. But if access to the industry and selecting the right material is all it takes to be a successful big-time director, maybe we need to reevaluate the profession.

  • KitC | December 20, 2011 8:06 PM

    To say that the movie works and Jolie acquits herself because she is a celebrity is to ignore the graveyard full of failed vanity projects. You don't have to go back too far -- just look at Madonna and Kevin Spacey. Even Kevin Costner had his Waterworld. In fact, I would say it is easier for celebrities to fail because of the frequently fatal combination of ego, rich resources and inexperience. Jolie joins a much shorter list with Clooney and Eastwood of those who were able to tackle complex material well the first time out.

  • Mea | December 20, 2011 4:52 PMReply

    While I think the critique made some excellent points regarding an excellent film, I have heard Angelina Jolie mischacterized in more ways than I can count but "flake" is not one of them. Thus your opening and closing use of the perjorative confused me. Since even many of her distractors allow for her intelligence, I was further perplexed by the "shockingly" in the critique's title.

  • Jan | December 21, 2011 10:28 AM

    Well there's also Ben and Casey Afleck, Sophia Coppola, and Ron Howard. And if you recall, Kevin Costner did pretty well the first time ou. And we're not even talking about the dozens and dozens of kids who inherited Dad's opportunities and contacts. These days Jason Reitman would top that list, but there are many others. The failures of Madonna and Spacey would seem to have far more to do with choice of material. But if access to the industry and selecting the right material is all it takes to be a successful big-time director, maybe we need to reevaluate the profession.

  • George | December 20, 2011 11:50 AMReply

    really nice piece and i'll all for giving artists a second/third look. but (vis a vis mary's comment): the idea that jolie doesn't care what the media think of her is wrong. with or without a publicist (and she has a manager who serves as her publicist anyway), she has always manipulated the paparazzi masterfully so that they "happen upon" scenes of her being a great mother. obviously this was at its height during the aniston/jolie PR wars, but jolie is still extremely canny and savvy about her public image and how to sculpt it. nothing is by accident. ever.

  • UrFullofshite | January 2, 2012 3:54 PM

    These comments always confuse and annoy me for the sheer illogic and stupidity, while the cruelty and venom behind such speculation just continues to astound. Number one, how is Jolie 'manipulating,' the paparazzi to 'happen upon scenes,' of her being a great mother? Are you suggesting that Jolie, arguably one of the most famous people in the world, wouldn't get snapped by papz with her children, sans manipulation? Does 'Angelina Jolie' really have to ring TMZ up and announce she's going out? Also, are you suggesting she pokes the babies with cattle prods or drugs them to make them look well behaved, and that she really stows them in the attic 24/7, while brad Pitt stands meekly by as silent witness? So Jolie traveling with her kids at airports, or in cars is 'savvy,' and 'manipulative ' but Jen garner at the market weekly with her kids, Reese witherspoon out and about with her brood, Jessica alba at the park on swings with her kids, Meryl Streep on red carpets with hers, or any number of other H'wood rents' are just being spontaneous - it's just a natural day in the life for THEM, eh? Next you'll be telling me that Gwyn Paltrow, Madonna, Nicole Kidman, or Paul Newman snd Joanne Woodward from back in the day, posing in magazine pictorials with THEIR kids is somehow less 'savvy,' than Pitt and Jolie. Oops, i forgot...Pitt doesn't exist in these bitter fuctitious scenarios of yours. But speaking of Pitt, last time I heard from him, he said, "the greatest gift I could give my children, is Angelina as their mother." I guess angelina is holding a gun to his head and making him lie to further 'manipulate' the press, eh? Lol. Bitter envious people such as 'George ' are worthless sexist bullies - who echo the lowest common denominator tabloid narrative (that you 'george' apparently swallow eagerly): that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt's ex (who Jolie doesn't even know) exist as human beings only to 'war' with each other in the pages of inTouch tabloid, forever catfighting fighting over a man. Second, these 'types' almost ALWAYS display vengeful misogynistic tendencies - Brad Pitt, the man who divorced and left his ex, for reasons he briefly, but illuminatingly, discussed close to 7 years ago, is always, without fail, left out of the equation, to this day. Somehow, his decision to end his marriage like about 70% of the U.S. populace does, in the mind of these obsessed and bitter Jolie detractors like 'George' is unaccounted for and never criticized, while Jolie continues to shoulder the blame. It is mythically attributed to her alone, as if Brad Pitt didn't even exist, let alone have his own decision making capabilities...and by all means, never EVER, infer that after his split, HE decided to pursue Jolie. She must always be the 'siren' luring him away from all that is good. Just forget about all those pics of Pitt chasing her across the globe. Whats funny, is that Pitt's ex, has had several other relationships begin and end over the last several years, post Pitt, and i'm sure angelina had nothing to do with those either, yet somehow, angry bitter women (or 'georges' ...heh) believe that only 'Brad Pitt,' of all people, would NEED the impetus of a Jolie to end an unfulfilling relationship. Vince vaughn can do it without a siren, ditto john mayer and others, but Brad Pitt, he needs assistance. hahahaha! By the way, if Jolie is so canny and savvy, and got where she is on her own, WITHOUT paying some flack 20% of her fortune, or having to scam people by slapping her name on a walmart perfume, or schilling tap water in plastic bottles, then that's just one more reason why she will ALWAYS be better than you are.

  • Mary | December 20, 2011 12:52 PM

    Then the Hollywood actors and actresses need to give up their publicists and quit big agencies like CAA if one woman like Jolie is so savvy and canny as to sculpt her image so well, you can't have it both ways.
    The media have been very harsh on Jolie, Caryn being one of the meanest ones, maybe attacking Jolie at the behest of others, but through it all, Jolie never responded. She kept her head up and her back straight and never allowed her critics to know what she thought about their attacks or if she even thought about it at all. That is her mystic and why love her or hate her, you cannot dismiss her. Those that are shocked and surprised by how good her movie is are those that see her through the tabloid narrative which have never been close to what she really is.

  • jane | December 20, 2011 12:32 PM

    Disagree. Angelina doesn't have to call the paparazzi especially during the time you mention. she was an even bigger hot topic back then. If anyone was in a pr war it was Pitt.

  • Mary | December 20, 2011 11:04 AMReply

    It takes a bigger woman to admit she has been wrong. After you did the hatchet piece on Jolie during your time with New York Times, I wondered why journalists like you were so threatened by her. But then the more you study the celebrity/media landscape, it becomes obvious. Jolie does not come across as warm and fuzzy, and she sure as hell doesn't suffer fools, period. Add to that, in spite of the accusation that she manipulates the media, the woman never had a publicist to schmooze the media and quite frankly, she doesn't care enough about what the media think of her to respond or deny things written about her.

    I am glad you have finally discovered what most of us have always known that Jolie is a very intelligent, kind, worldly, kick ass woman who also happens to be drop dead gorgeous. I can't wait to see the movie.

  • Faye Stone | January 1, 2012 10:26 PM

    Mary, your astute observation should be shouted from the rooftops regarding the "mistreatment" of The Jolie. Finally, someone gets it. Thank you for this!

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