Roth Goes to War on Incest
By Neil Norman
Tim Roth is aptly named, for there is inside him a kind of ever-simmering wrath, a voodoo anger that he has learned to channel through the prism of performance leaving a trail of irradiated punk characters in his wake.
While most would cite as key roles his debut as the tattooed skinhead in Made in Britain, Mr. Orange, the undercover cop who bled all over the scenery of Reservoir Dogs, or the effete and sadistic swordsman Archie in Rob Roy, I prefer his apprentice assassin in The Hit, the simple-minded brother of Phil Daniels in Mike Leigh's Meantime and his drug addict searching for a cure with Tupac Shakur in Gridlock'd. Perhaps the last thing we had imagined him to be was a director. The War Zone forces a reassessment.
Based on a novel by Alexander Stuart, The War Zone takes us on the most horrific journey imaginable -- into the centre of a family imploding from the evil of incest. This is child abuse in extremis, the ultimate malfunction between father and daughter. It is not an easy subject and given that it is based on a work of fiction I asked Roth why he chose it as the subject of his first film.
"I took the challenge of directing and then I made it as difficult as I possibly could," he says. "If I didn't work I could always bugger off back to acting."
This is a typical Roth riposte, reactionary glibness concealing the depth of his motive; a snarl, a smile and (once) a song. But I know, and he knows, it's not quite good enough.
The boring answer is that producer Sarah Radclyffe (who optioned the book) gave it to him when she knew he was looking for a film to direct. The more interesting answer is this: "I think it was a knee-jerk reaction against the kind of films that are being made now. I think Nil by Mouth is actually great entertainment -- I was weeping buckets -- and I still like stuff like A Bug's Life. But the real emotional things are marginalised."
As if to compensate for this dearth, Roth has deployed industrial-strength emotions in The War Zone and has pulled together an appropriate cast to wield them. The indefatigable Ray Winstone is the abusing father (a sort of pater-over-familias), the ethereal Tilda Swinton is the mother, and newcomers Lara Belmont and Freddie Cunliffe are the children. It's an astonishing combination of old lags and new blood.
"Ray was the first one I crossed off my list", says Roth with a crooked grin. "When he came up for discussion I said 'No way, he'll scare the kids.' It took a year until I eventually came round to him. By then I'd seen him in a lot of things and I realised he could do it. He has an innate comprehension of film, he's great with the kids and he can do everything. He'll deny it, of course, but that's Ray." He pauses, lights one of many cigarettes, and continues: "When he read the script he said, "It'll be great to play a good guy for a change" and he meant it. He understood. Dad is a man, not a psychotic monster. He loves his kids but something has gone wrong."
What exactly it is that has gone wrong is never explained, which has caused some commentators to take Roth to task for presenting an emotional fait accompli. But he is adamant that the work -- and the explicitness, culminating in one of the most damaging sex acts committed to film -- is fully justified. Every word of the script was vetted by people who had had experience of abuse. And Roth himself?
"There is a limit to how far I can talk about that. I have a great family and I've no intention of hurting them. I have been around these kinds of people. So draw your own conclusions."
I push him a little further. But he simply repeats himself: "Draw your own conclusions." The trouble is, I don't know what conclusions to draw.
How did he think he would have dealt with the subject if he wasn't a parent? Momentarily, the attitude, the tattooed swagger of arrogance that Roth uses to keep the over-inquisitive at bay, subsides.
"That's a good question. Nobody's ever asked me that before. I think if I hadn't been a parent I wouldn't have made the film. I wouldn't have felt qualified. The danger would have been that you abused the kids all over again."
He cites several incidents of victims of abuse coming up to him after seeing the film to thank him for exposing the most clandestine of deviant practices with such coruscating honesty. Clearly he is deadly serious about the subject matter and is at pains to counterattack accusations of exploitation. He likens the climatic scene to that of a murder: "It is the slow poisoning of a child. Everything that happens in her life after that -- having a boyfriend, a baby, a family -- will be informed by that moment. It affects everything."
Roth himself has three children, a 15 year old son by a former marriage, and two youngsters by his present wife Nikki. Raised in Dulwich, south London's answer to Hampstead, he is an uneasy combination of London machismo (tattoos, combat boots, attitude) and doting family man. Currently resident in Los Angeles, where he can find work as an actor with relative ease, his return to his homeland for his directorial debut is a significant comment on the different film industries of the US and Britain.
Roth is one of a loose aggregation of British actors whose roots in social resist cinema are directly attributable to their early work with the late Alan Clarke. Roth's screen debut in Clarke's Made in Britain was as much a statement of intent as Ray Winstone's in Clarke's Scum. Similarly, Gary Oldman and Phil Davis, who both appeared in The Firm, owe a debt of attitude to their mentor and have gone on to direct films (Nil by Mouth and ID respectively).
Was Roth's shift into directing a way of keeping the torch alight for Clarke?
"Absolutely totally," he says without a moment's hesitation. "I don't make films like him and this is not the way Alan would have told the story, but I learned how to cast new people from him, I learned commitment, courage, everything."