On paper, the concept of Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson’s I Declare War is pretty fascinating. The Audience Award winner at the 2012 Fantastic Fest and most recent film distributed by Drafthouse Films digs into the world of a group of young kids during a game of war. It’s something most of us have done (maybe just the men out there) and instantly brings back the nostalgia of summer vacation and times of zero responsibility. I Declare War is certainly trying to take these tender feelings and spark them with some edge inspired by The Lord of the Flies. It’s a fresh take on that classic novel and the many gritty war films we’ve seen since, but the film can never quite pull it all together convincingly.
I Declare War puts us right into the game, showing us the two opposing teams and even finding a clever way of telling the unawares the rules through the opening credit sequence. We also are quickly introduced to the major conceit of I Declare War — that though these are obviously children playing a children’s game, we see the sticks and water balloons they use as real guns and grenades. When a player is “shot” we see them actually get shot. They still play by the put-upon rules like counting to ten after being shot before they can rejoin the game, but we see what their imaginations would generate. Again, I think this is a pretty clever little construction, but the film gets stuck between being realistic and pure imagination. Perhaps if there was a definitive moment that shifted between what we would really see and the creation of the world it would have been more successful. There are a few moments where this transformation is achieved, and these moments absolutely work, but the piece as a whole is confused and inconsistent.
When the players are seen shooting what looks like live ammo (but isn’t), the film’s actual moments of danger are trivialized. During the game, Skinner, a member of the enemy team, goes rogue and “kills” his own leader in order to take charge. We learn more about his true motivations throughout the film, but we first see him as little more than a power-hungry psychopath. After Skinner takes one of his opponents hostage, he subjects the boy to some honestly cruel things. He ties him up, threatens him with a pocket knife and puts heavy weight onto his chest, an act of torture he read in a book. At other times we see kids get viciously kicked and beat up after being “shot”. Because we are seeing young boys display violence with guns and grenades (which are fake), these moments of real violence should feel heightened, but really can’t be differentiated. Could the film be making some statement about how kids playing “guns” is just as harmful as real violence that happens? It certainly doesn’t feel that way, and if it were trying to make this point it might be a worse, as it is lavishly living in this action film world. In fact, I Declare War actively takes on the worst traits of modern action films that don’t honestly portray what violence can do to people.
Strangely enough, though, I Declare War has an entertainment problem. For a film about kids playing a game, it really isn’t much fun itself. A lot of this is in the tone and dialogue, which tries to be ultra serious without being ironic. Thinking of the greatest films that have casts predominantly made up of children, even the ones with serious tones and themes showcase an adventurous attitude that comes with being a kid. The plot of I Declare War seems tailor made for a whimsical entertainment as the film is balanced through pure imagination, but it takes itself too seriously throughout. Many of the actors play ultra serious, without any emotion, seeming to put on a “serious face.” As some characters are supposed to represent military leaders, the idea makes some sense, but they don’t feel like kids playing a game. Other kids in the game talk and act like pre-adolescent boys — these characters feel more in line with the spirit of the film, but these inconsistencies only made the poor dialogue and delivery more jarring. Those who aren’t fully and seriously invested in the game within the film, including an outsider brought in for a specific tactic, feel like they are in a completely different movie — honestly, one that I liked better.
By the end of the game I was left wondering if winning the game was as important as the film made it seem. When multiple characters are pleading for their “lives” or are asked to actually hurt someone in the name of winning, it all kind of feels silly. The film uses our emotional affiliations with real war and that’s a bit troubling — comparing a real soldier in a real war begging you not to shoot in the same situation as one of these kids with a stick for a gun is a rabbit hole I don’t really want to step into. On the other hand, after the previously mentioned captured character escapes from Skinner, he doesn’t seem in the least bit traumatized — if you were playing this game, even if you were “in it” as much as these kids are, if an opponent pulled a knife on you, wouldn’t you step out and say this is too much?
I can certainly see the value of the film’s ideas on paper, but in practice none of it quite works. The truly emotional moments are lost through the otherwise scattershot tones and the film wants us to know that these are kids even when they rarely act like kids. Ultimately, though, if I Declare War was sharper, funnier and more knowing of the strange world-building rules of the film’s conceit I would have had a better time with it.