A Bullet Wasted

Directed by George Milton  |  Review by Prarthana Mitra

Set in the English woods, George Milton’s nine-minute short A Bullet Wasted focuses on how civil wars thoughtlessly turn one against another, tragically pitting parents against their children, brother against sister, comrade against comrade.

In a single continuous take, Milton’s camera assumes an identity of its own. Like a fly in the soup, it follows three characters in a labyrinthine quest for the first few minutes. As is evident from their military uniforms and patriotic high ground, they are here on a mission – not all of them are willing participants but that’s beside the point.

In the filmmaker’s own words, the narrative constantly plays with the viewer’s conceptions of us and them, allies and enemies — and the fluid nature of the two during strife. “I came up with a story that makes the audience work hard to follow what’s actually happening – they’re behind the story, often trying to work out retrospectively what might have occurred. The audience has to fill in some of the gaps themselves, as if they’re glimpsing one small part of a bigger drama,” he tells CICF.

There are no winners in war

The film opens in the neck of the woods as Natasha, played by Mia Lacostena, finds herself chased down by a young compatriot played by Joe Bolland. It soon culminates in a scuffle on the forest floor, where they go at each other like dogs and had me fooled that they were on opposite sides in the war.

But as it turns out, they are being led by a compulsion to conform to higher powers that remind them the order must be restored. Exemplifying this war-mongering spirit is the Commander (played by Michael Adams) who joins them soon after Natasha has been dressed down and brought back on track, and the three set off for something specific, somewhere deep into the forest.

While the men are nonchalant yet clear about their destination, Natasha walks desultorily; there is perhaps a hint of reluctance and we soon learn why. The camera holds their gazes for a while before tracking away suspensefully into what lies ahead of them — a prisoner of war kneeling at a distance.

Dressed in white with a hood placed above his head, the operatic procession towards the prisoner (played by Reuben-Henry Biggs) makes for a visual treat. The climax soon soars to a roaring crescendo after the hood is removed. Natasha turns catatonic after receiving direct orders to kill him. Knowing fully well she cannot back down, she is faced with a difficult choice.

A sobering climax and a blurred line

It is here that the storytelling gets really interesting because just as the camera looks away from this cacophony into the vast green unknown, there are gunshots, leaving the viewer to permute the odds of Natasha’s survival.

Before you are done pondering their fates, however, the film ends with two new characters – a mother and her daughter who were probably hiking, picking mushrooms, picnicking, or doing any of those things people do at peacetime – running towards the firing ring and becoming unwitting witnesses to warfare and unrest.

Lacostena, Bolland and Adams portray and the power, panic and internal conflict, each bringing a different facet of the psyche affected by wars to the ensemble, that gives form to that scintillating finale. The final shot of the forest then brings the film to a full circle, suggesting that the universe remains indifferent to this cycle of violence we inflict on each other.

On the creative choice of shooting the entire film in one take, Milton warns against the self-consciousness of a single uninterrupted take. It is important not to distance the viewer but to maintain an interesting tension by balancing the camera movement as a stylistic device against the suspension of disbelief, he tells Directors UK.

The cinematography and depth of field on ARRI TRINITY is breathtaking, to say the least. Behind the camera is Robbi Ryan who has films like The Favourite, Fish Tank, American Honey and I, Daniel Blake below his belt. In praise of the revered Irish cinematographer, Milton in an interviewacknowledges how Ryan pushed him to be consistent and ‘pure’ with the camera’s point of view.

Co-writer Mark Tilton, Casting Director Rosalie Clayton, Sound Recordist Lucy Pickering, and Make-up Designer Ameneh Mahloudji – all of Milton’s regular collaborators – have each helped Milton express his inner struggle with the dichotomy and dilemma of war.

In the end, the film is a jolting reminder for communities to stand up against manufactured hate. On an essential note, the film removes any distinction between victors and spoils of war because they are one and the same.

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