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Movie Review: IN THE LAND OF BLOOD AND HONEY Is Angelina Jolie's Affecting (If Imperfect) Directorial Debut

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Given actress Angelina Jolie’s many humanitarian concerns, it was probably only a matter of time before she used her movie-star clout to bring those concerns to (cinematic) light.  As an actress, Jolie’s attempts in this realm have been misguided at best; 2003’s Beyond Borders, for example, tries to package African genocide into an uncomfortably slick mélange of action-adventure and romance-novel-ready chest heaving.

With her directorial debut—In the Land of Blood and Honey—she fares much better, even after taking into consideration the narrative landmines her script suffers from.  Jolie hasn’t quite learned her lesson, as she tries to filter the horror of the Bosnian War through the fraught relationship between a conflicted Serbian soldier (Goran Kostić) and the Muslin woman (Zana Marjanović) he loved before the war.  What’s changed, however, in the nine subsequent years, is Jolie’s emotional intelligence; she may respond to the cliché, but she no longer believes that love conquers all when real death and suffering are involved.

Jolie keeps the impetus behind her leads’ relationship forever murky. Marjanović’s sensitive artist Ajla hasn’t seen much of the war, but what she has seen suggests that a beautiful woman such as herself is far worse off that any of the Muslim men (without veering into exploitation, Jolie is able to create the pervasive menace of sexual violation). Kostić’s Danijel may represent politics and violence that she cannot abide, but he protects her when no one else can.

It’s no less complicated for Danijel.  Kostić has some of the enigmatic steeliness that made Steve McQueen so fascinating, and we can never quite read what he’s thinking.  The film often shows him sighting innocent Bosnian civilians in his riflescope and pondering their fates; we don’t know if it’s goodness that holds back his finger, or rather the desire to feel good.  He appears to care for Ajla (he has his private cook prepare her meals and even gives her escape suggestions), but how much of that is genuine?  Does he enjoy controlling another person, or is it a simple pleasure thing, the allure of having a sexual plaything untainted by the rest of his platoon?

Watching Danijel and Ajla together, it’s clear that Jolie has picked up more than a few tricks of the trade from her old collaborator and mentor Clint Eastwood: letting the actors drive the material, maintaining an objective yet critical eye, giving the unsaid the proper weight and force.  I feared a routine melodrama (“Love Amongst the Backdrop of War,” or something equally ludicrous), but whenever Jolie just lets Danijel and Ajla exist—which happens a fair amount of the runtime—In the Land of Blood and Honey gains a provocative, ambiguous allure unique to the war movie genre.

That said, if In the Land of Blood and Honey indicates a promising future for Angelina Jolie the Director, it reveals that Jolie the Screenwriter just isn’t operating at the same level.  I can forgive the film’s structural weirdness—it has two climaxes, one at the very end and one about fifty minutes in that lets out some of the tension Jolie had built up—but I’m afraid her dialogue skills are far more dire.  Her characters don’t speak much, but when they do, they deliver unbearably purple prose pontificating on the nature of race and genocide (same line: “Why must our people be treated so savagely simply because we are different?”).  I wasn’t surprised to learn that the picture won the PGA’s Stanley Kramer Award; Jolie shares the same tendency for artlessly/obviously delivering social aims through dialogue that likewise crippled such Kramer pictures as The Wild One or The Defiant Ones.

The issue is not fatal.  Much of the film is silent, and Kostić and Marjanović are such interesting, expressive performers that their faces add richness and subtext to the tone-deaf words coming out of their mouths.  But the words keep this good movie from becoming a great one.  All of a sudden, you aren’t hearing Danijel and Ajla talk.  You’re hearing Jolie, condemning Serbian war atrocities from her U.N. perch.  That’s the takeaway, I think.  The movie itself is a soapbox.  Bringing another just overdoes it.

This is a subdued film, visually, and it’s a credit to Sony’s HD mastering team that the digital picture maintains clarity and detail while preserving Jolie’s somewhat muted, atmospheric palette.  The disc also has a terrific 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track; it conveys both the picture’s hushed soundscape and the periodic explosions of noise (bombings, gunfire).

Special features are okay.  We get sixteen minutes of deleted scenes that help flesh out the supporting cast a little, as well as a short, EPK-style “making of” featurette.  The best supplement is an hour-long Q&A with Jolie and co-star Vanesa Glodjo; it’s as close as the Blu-ray comes to providing an audio commentary.

In addition, the set has a DVD with the English language version of the film.  This isn’t just a simple dubbed track; Jolie shot multiple takes in different languages, meaning that this English version has her actors speaking their lines in English on-camera.

In the Land of Blood and Honey isn’t a revelatory film experience, but rather a sober-minded, technically competent, and surprisingly involving adult drama.  As directorial debuts go, Angelina Jolie has proven herself more-than capable behind the camera; when she hooks up with a real screenwriter, I have no doubt she’ll be able to go the distance.

This Blu-ray/DVD combo pack is now available.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.