Earning two-time Tony-contender Jeremy Pope a well-deserved Golden Globe nomination, this military drama refuses to make easy choices.
May 04, 2023
If war is hell, then military boot camp is purgatory. So told Full Metal Jacket, with Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece making that observation echo and pierce with the relentlessness of machine-gun fire. Now, The Inspection stresses the same point nearing four decades later, plunging into the story of a gay Black man enlisting, then navigating the nightmare that is basic training. This too is a clear-eyed step inside the United States Marine Corps, but drawn from first-time fictional feature filmmaker Elegance Bratton's own experiences. New Yorker Ellis French (Jeremy Pope, One Night in Miami) is the Pier Kids documentarian's on-screen alter ego — an out queer man who has spent a decade from his teens to his mid-20s homeless after being kicked out by his ashamed mother Inez (Gabrielle Union, Strange World), and pledges his post 9/11 freedom away for a place to fit in, even if that means descending into a world of institutional homophobia and racism.
It would've been easy for Bratton to just sear and scorch in The Inspection; his film is set in 2005, "don't ask, don't tell" was still the US military forces' policy and discrimination against anyone who isn't a straight white man is horrendously brutal. Life being moulded into naval-infantry soldiers is savage anyway; "our job is not to make Marines, it's to make monsters," says Leland Laws (Bokeem Woodbine, Wu-Tang: An American Saga), Ellis' commanding officer and chief state-sanctioned tormentor. And yet, crafting a film that's as haunting as it is because it's supremely personal, Bratton never shies away from Ellis' embrace of the Marines in his quest to work out how he can be himself. There's nothing simple about someone signing up for such heartbreaking anguish because that's the only option that they can imagine, but this stunning movie is anything but simple.
Gulf War veteran Laws is indeed The Inspection's own R Lee Ermey type, seeing Ellis' sexuality as his major malfunction — as do many of the privates training with him, plus Inez. The latter's derision gives agonising context to Ellis' eagerness to don the uniform; being dismissed and denigrated for being gay started at home long before he's at the recruit depot on South Carolina's Parris Island. In fact, Inez's abode, with religious iconography everywhere and her prison-guard hardness festering, is where she unburdens her disappointment during her son's early visit. Unlike for audiences, this isn't the first time he's hearing it. Ellis needs his birth certificate, Inez is as malicious with her words while handing it over as the military's worst, and having a parent who won't accept you for who you are is hell as well.
Under the abhorrent Laws, nothing about boot camp in The Inspection comes as a surprise. Played with can't-look-away menace by the ever-reliable Woodbine, he doesn't just set the tone for his charges to follow — he makes punishing any derivation from his perceived norm a cruel and compulsory sport. Accordingly, when Ellis' sexual orientation becomes apparent, it's hazing open season among his peers and superiors. Only drill instructor Rosales (Raúl Castillo, Cha Cha Real Smooth) offers sympathy and kindness. And, in a place where every difference stands out, Muslim enlistee Ismail (Eman Esfandi, King Richard) is largely the only other target. Second-generation Marine Harvey (McCaul Lombardi, Patti Cake$) couldn't relish being a bully more, but it isn't difficult to get the bulk of the cadets sharing his hostility.
Writing, directing and also ensuring that cinematographer Lachlan Milne (Minari) shoots with the raw intensity of a memory so unshakeable that it always feels fresh, Bratton stares head-on at his protagonist's distressing ordeal. The physical training is gruelling and grinding, and the abuse fierce and ferocious — but Ellis' determination to stick it out, retain his place and continue asking his mother to attend his graduation is equally as resolute. So is Bratton's, actually, with The Inspection grappling with the contradiction that is shaping one's sense of belonging around an institution that so overtly doesn't want you as you are. His feature is all the better because it refuses to make obvious and unchallenging choices, even when it's at its most arduous and depicting one of cinema's most well-documented routines; IRL, as informs this flick, the filmmaker patently never did either.
There's a thick and lingering feeling to The Inspection, too, that peering at this time in Bratton's life was always going to be a thorny process. Based on the details, how could an autobiographical affair like this have proven anything else? His movie depends and thrives on that air, with every move made behind the lens — including whether skewing poetic and dreamlike, or seeping the picture in pain and grimness — letting the knottiness of what he went through, and what Ellis now endures, swish and swirl. Cue those inescapable Full Metal Jacket vibes and the terror that comes with it, but also nods to Moonlight in how The Inspection examines what it means to be Black and gay. Cue, as well, a kindred piece at times to Claire Denis' Beau Travail in visually surveying its military figures and honing in on stolen glances.
Bratton was already a talent before The Inspection, and already directing his gaze inwards in a way, earning the Film Independent Spirit Awards' Truer Than Fiction prize in 2021 for Pier Kids and its focus on Black and homeless queer and trans NYC youths. Backing that gong up with a Best First Feature nomination at the same awards in 2023 isn't just his feat alone, however. A contender for two 2019 Tonys for Choir Boy and Ain't Too Proud, and for a 2020 Emmy for Netflix's Hollywood, Pope has also been receiving deserved attention for his debut feature lead portrayal — a simmering, sinewy and soulful turn that nabbed him a Golden Globes nod (albeit losing out to Elvis' Austin Butler) and is as magnetic as performances come. He's powerfully supported by the fear-inducing Woodbine, the subtle work of Castillo and the blistering efforts of Union. Bring It On isn't just the name of a movie she's still well-known for, but a description of how she commits to an emotionally strenuous part in a beautifully complicated film.
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