As any seasoned movie-goer will tell you, "War is Hell." We've seen it all. Not since the nerve-shredding Hurt Locker has a war movie introduced something fresh into the depiction of man's inhumanity to man.
So then, it must have been a daunting prospect for director Fernando Coimbra to begin his own campaign, even without the concern of an opening weekend and streaming distribution on Netflix. No matter what your strategy, any general will have to make considerations for acceptable losses. It's just whether or not those losses have you coming home in a body bag or choppered victoriously back to "the world." Sand Castle is aware enough to not try and commandeer from previous celluloid theaters of war. So too does it make the decision, early on, to present facts without prejudice. The problem is, if you're not willing to take a few hits either way, you end up with your emotional-bullet stuck in the chamber.
Things start well enough, when Nicholas Hoult's Ocre explains he signed up to the reserves for his college tuition, shortly before he puts his hand in a HUMV's door frame and slams the door into his knuckles. It's unflinching and presents the dichotomy of the service, but Sand Castle never quite hits the target quite so well again. There's plenty going on that presents the contradictions of war - particularly in the modern theater - acclimated veterans that just want to see things go "boom", apathetic decision making by superiors far removed from the front line and grander plans that are kept hidden from the grunts. However, Sand Castle puts firmly in its sights the incongruity of being attacked by the very people you're trying to help. With the cast of Hoult, Henry Caville and Logan Marshall-Green leading the charge, you'd do well to not reach your narrative destination, but by the end of this particular mission, you'll wonder how it was as ineffectual as it is.
Sand Castle is not without its victories. It's keen, yet observational eye offers a day-in-the-life view in the most precarious moments. It's a surprise when skirmishes appear and you'll feel (much like our troops) that you should have kept your guard up. Unfortunately, the trick that lulls you is also the same one that has you lose interest. While that particular switch-and-bait offers a startling jolt, the impact is lost on repetition. It may be the aim of Coimbra to present the desensitisation of war, but surely not at the cost of the viewers involvement.
As much as we look through the eyes of a US serviceman being asked to help people who seem hell-bent on plugging him full of holes, Sand Castle also illustrates the dangers of the people who offer to work with the soldiers. Even when they're bringing much needed services - in this case a water supply - to their people, an alliance can be seen as colluding with the invading enemy, punishable by abhorrent methods.
It's always brave for a film to show conflicting sides and not attempt to resolve them, just as it is rewarding for an audience to pick through and make up their own mind. However, the sides have to be presented strongly enough for us to make a decision.
2* - All Quiet On The Middle-Eastern Front