'Sand Castle' unpacks Operation Iraqi Futility

Nicholas Hoult stars in the new Netflix movie Sand Castle.

My mom's Netflix account has been working overtime lately to provide me, my roommates and untold ex-boyfriends a constant stream of programming. (Just how many places can one woman's login stretch before it reaches its limit? The world may never know.) The latest Netflix original film, Sand Castle, hits select theaters (nowhere near Montana), and more ubiquitously, a living room near you on streaming media this Friday.

Set in 2003, during the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Sand Castle epitomizes a distinctive time in filmmaking—now—when an independent war movie of pretty good but not earth-shattering quality gets produced and then one day unceremoniously shows up on our computers, waiting patiently to be discovered. What kind of world are we living in? I remember when new films arrived like live grenades, and to unpack them required a modicum of deliberation and effort. Now you can just roll out of bed, click a few buttons and halfway pay attention to this sincere, upsetting picture about the futility of war.

Sand Castle comes to us from Brazilian director Fernando Coimbra, from a script by Iraq war veteran Chris Roessner. Nicholas Hoult stars as Private Matt Ocre, whom we are introduced to as he repeatedly slams his own hand with a Hummer door in a failed attempt to get out of active duty. You may or may not remember Hoult from his earlier work, most notably as the kid opposite Hugh Grant in 2002's About a Boy. Kid actors turned soldiers is somehow doubly unsettling. He doesn't belong in Army fatigues; he should be back in grade school with his mother and his British accent! But never mind.

In a small village on the outskirts of Baqubah, Iraq, Ocre and his fellow soldiers are tasked with repairing a water-pumping station that's been damaged by U.S. bombs. Special Forces Captain Syverson, played by Henry Cavill (Man of Steel) heads the mission armed with a sinking certainty that the Iraqi people are distrustful of the soldiers' help, and that whatever work they complete will quickly be turned again to rubble. The film's overt and persistent theme of the chaos and futility of these early missions feels both refreshing and depressing.

To be clear, I don't know anything about war, but I know a little about what happens to the men who come back from it. There was the ex-sniper turned schizophrenic I used to hang out with at the Golden Rose, the ex-Marine with the violent temper who used to spend hours at night watching combat videos on YouTube at frighteningly high volumes, and his best friend who came home to a wife and baby only to shoot himself in the head a few months later. All of them carried an aura that I can only describe as regret, and the nagging sense of missions left unaccomplished.

And I've heard stories about little kids approaching the cavalry asking for water, but surprise: They're strapped with bombs. Roessner's script, based on his direct experience of war, confirms what I've heard. It imagines the paranoia and distrust that war breeds between soldiers and occupied citizens.

Sand Castle isn't exactly a modern classic in the tradition of Platoon, but it feels authentic in a way that I suspect those touched by war will find cathartic and comforting.

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