Post-traumatic stress disorder is a recurring theme in cinema, quite often dealing with the aftermath of a war situation. The Deer Hunter is probably the best example of this, but given the recent US involvement in several conflicts in the Middle East, in the past decade there has been a small surge in films exploring the effects of the stress of war. The Hurt Locker, In The Valley of Elah, American Sniper and Brothers all dealt with this issue, with varying success. In general, these films show the outward reaction of the character suffering from PTSD, and how it affects their relations to other people. But Dutch director David Verbeek, in his sixth feature film Full Contact, tries to show what’s going on inside the mind of someone trying to cope with post-traumatic stress in a more original, somewhat circular way by retelling the same story three times.
Like the other recent examples given, Full Contact too is set against the backdrop of American military presence in the Middle East, in this case Afghanistan. In this case, however, it is a presence from a distance, almost from ‘the comfort of your own home’. Ivan (Grégoire Colin, probably best known for his role in Claire Denis’ Beau Travail) is a drone pilot carrying out his missions from a bunker in the Nevada desert. Joystick in hand, killing baddies half a world away becomes akin to playing a video game, and renders the act emotionless. Even though his missile-guiding system blares out “Contact!” with every hit, Ivan clearly has a problem making full contact (get it?) with other people, as evidenced by his awkward courting of local stripper Cinderella (Lizzie Brocheré, American Horror Story). The stone-faced loner starts to crack though when he hits what is thought to be an al-Qaeda training facility hiding a high-ranking terrorist named Al Zaim (Slimane Dazi, of ICS winner Un Prophète), but turns out to be a boys’ school.
In most other films, we would see the protagonist unravel from this point, and the effects it has on the people surrounding him or her. Verbeek only gives us a glimpse of the outside of that, until we are suddenly dropped into Ivan’s inner world. Out of the blue (quite literally, as he rises naked from the sea), we find him on a seemingly deserted island, again on his own, as he is (by his own words) ‘reborn’. The symbolism is somewhat obvious, but because of the jarring effect of the sudden move from Nevada to a remote island, it is effective in signaling we are on an island in Ivan’s mind, not in reality. He is withdrawn in his own world, closed off from everything else by the sea, until suddenly a dog walks up to his campfire. Clearly meant as a representation of Cinderella (Verbeek sought a dog with eyes similar to Brocheré, he admitted at the Q&A), the dog forms a tentative bond with Ivan. Then he runs into the boys he killed in his drone strike, who we recognize from a photo he found online after that fatal hit, as well as the man that was supposed to be the target. Even though they pose no threat, he kills them again, though this time at closer range.
There is another jump, and suddenly Ivan is in a free-fighting school, led by the same terrorist encountered in the two previous versions of the story. He seeks contact, asks to be trained by Al Zaim. Outside the gym, Ivan works in an airport lost-and-found department, where he is partnered up with Cindy, a single mom, not surprisingly again played by Brocheré. Their relationship is much easier and more tender now, but she is again abandoned when he faces the final confrontation with Al Zaim and his men, this time in an up-close-and-personal free fight in Al Zaim’s gym.
The repeating structure of the protagonist killing the same men over and over again is more than just a narrative device here. It shows the way Ivan is coping with the trauma of having inadvertently killed innocent people. He needs to rehash the events in his head, retelling the story until there is a version that he can have peace with (a gentle gesture at the end of the third version symbolizes this closure). The combat also becomes more personal, more physical and less clinical with each progression, and the aesthetic of the three stories matches that. In the ‘real’ version of the event, the cool, distant cinematography frames Ivan in stark images as a measured loner, a man who has trouble making contact and whose emotions barely register. In the middle part, the frantic camerawork and shortened edits match the chaos in Ivan’s head, as he is in the turbulent initial stages of dealing with his mistake. Then, in the third act, in particular the scenes at the gym, softened lensing and subdued lighting signal the inner peace the character is reaching. The score (by Tindersticks’ David Boulter) and sound design, always an important component of Verbeek’s work, follow suit.
Most recognizable, however, is the representation of Brocheré’s character in the screenplay. At the Q&A, the actress herself jokingly called it the classical ‘mother and whore’ dichotomy, but all kidding aside there is truth in that, in the sense that it shows Ivan’s approach to women is changing for the better (where this leaves the dog is anyone’s guess; Verbeek seems far too nice a guy to play a ‘bitch’ joke here). In a way, the fatal mistake has been good for Ivan. Even if we don’t return to the ‘real’ world, one does get the feeling that he comes out of this a better man, a more understanding man.
As said, the film is not all that subtle in its symbolism at times, but Verbeek chooses this route because of the structure of the screenplay (which he also wrote). Without the on-the-nose nods to the audience, the film would probably become too distant and alienating. Part of the reason is that the director chose his subject (a drone pilot killing from thousands of miles away) deliberately, but focuses fully on what his job does to a person psychologically, leaving the political and moral implications mostly for others to ponder. Full Contact isn’t a very political film, which it easily could have been, but is more interested in the desensitization and the lessening ability to connect to other people as a result of our increasingly technological way of interacting with each other, a recurring motif in Verbeek’s work. It lacks the Eastern sensibilities of his more recent work (likely a result of him living in Asia most of the time), which at once opens him up to a wider audience but also ‘hardens’ his film. Still, he remains one of the more interesting filmmakers around, and Full Contact seems like a natural progression to bigger, more recognized work (while not exactly comprised of big stars, this is easily his most recognizable cast, for instance). Considering his oeuvre up to this point, it’s about time.