Movie Review: The Recce

The Recce is a South African war drama from writer-director Johannes Ferdinand Van Zyl. The film follows the journey of a soldier behind enemy lines, who is wrongfully declared KIA during the Angolan war in 1981. From preparing to go into a state of isolation, far from his wife and in a constant state of danger, a man wrestles with the idea of being alone and the chance that he may never return home.

This is a poetic ode, rather than a flat out survival war drama. Based on the marketing material, one would expect a gritty survivalist film in which a man battles against the odds in order to serve his country and/or stay alive, much like Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn. However, this bold and artistic vision is more in tune with Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, blending nature and man, opting for a more poetic and atmospheric film experience. The Recce is also reminiscent of The Grey with Liam Neeson, offering some ethereal flashbacks and a poetic undertone as a man traversing the wilderness recalls tender moments with his wife. Then, as if taking a “blank” page from Castaway with Tom Hanks, The Recce employs a sparse screenplay, at times relying on little to no dialogue.

Greg Kriek plays Henk Viljoen, a hardened special operative soldier trying to make peace with the fact that he is totally on his own. Kriek is a real trooper, a hard-working actor whose commitment is unquestionable as he undertakes a blood, sweat and tears performance in The Recce. He’s supported by Christia Visser, one of South Africa’s bright young stars, who lives and breathes her characters. Playing his doting wife, Nicola, she brings some innocence to a woman at the behest of the state and her husband’s dangerous endeavours, expecting her sweetheart to come home and for them to raise a happily ever after family. The Recce is further strengthened by the presence of the prolific and underrated Grant Swanby. Maurice Carpede adds intensity as a silent killer and Marius Weyers further bolsters the ensemble as the obedient General Piet Visagie.

“I’m all out of love!”

The Recce is an ambitious drama, which is concerned with creating a frame of mind rather than telling a linear story. If you’re expecting to see a tough drama about a man’s attempts to stay alive, much like The Revenant, you may be disappointed. Relying on atmosphere and visuals primarily, gives the filmmakers more time to access the perfect shot and keep the film visually stimulating, which it does. Unfortunately, with little dialogue to sculpt depth of characterisation and a loosely knitted storyline, the overall experience is curious yet rather alienating. Off-screen voice-overs help create mood, otherwise the film is more preoccupied with technical and experiential attributes.

Having such a fine cast at your disposal, one would imagine the filmmakers would have drawn from the depth of acting talent, instead of simply leaning on the actors in order to evoke full-fledged characters. While the characters are fairly anonymous and distant, earnest performances do help you get a sense of the story… just enough to keep you transfixed by the visuals.

Relying less on audio, gives you the chance to be more intentional about the look and feel of your film. Perhaps operating on a reasonably low budget, this seemed like a great way of effecting a feature film at conception. Unfortunately this ambitious, bold and even noble move is not fulfilled in terms of entertainment. Artistic, treated almost like a series of memories, the film just isn’t compelling enough to simply rely on technical finesse. The choppy edit, disconnected feeling, lack of dialogue, diminished characterisation and even some missteps all serve to undermine what must have started as a pure vision.

Even some of the greatest auteurs would struggle to get this kind of film approved nowadays, making it a bold decision for Johannes Ferdinand Van Zyl. The film may have tremendous personal significance for the filmmakers, but just seems like a missed opportunity when you look at all the talent involved. It’s not without merit, but comes across as rather hollow when you expect they are aiming for something with much more clout and substance.

The bottom line: Obscured