A thoughtful look at war.
At the outset of Fernando Coimbra’s Sand Castle, now streaming on Netflix, the young soldier played by Nicholas Hoult makes it clear that although he signed up to be in the reserves, he hadn’t really been prepared to be in a war; instead he just wanted the money that being in the reserves offered for college. Then 9/11 happened, the world changed, and he had to fight.
It is a smart, touching, and slightly bloody start to a war movie, one that takes the audience with Private Matt Ocre (Hoult) and his fellow squad mates into Iraq as they attempt to win over the hearts and minds of a town by restoring the flow of water. And, just as with the start of the movie, the rest of it is smart, touching, and slightly bloody.
What impresses about Sand Castle is not the generalities of the tale—movies about wars in the Middle East and even this particular war in Iraq have been made before—but rather the fact that, unlike so many other films, this one doesn’t give a strong pro- or anti-war message. It is instead very concerned with offering up to the audience a look at the difficulties the soldiers and the people of Iraq face during the war.
At one point in the film, Ocre’s squad, which is led by Sgt. Harper (Logan Marshall-Green) and consists of several other members including Sgt. Chutsky (the charismatic Glen Powell), attempt to hire Iraqis to help with the rebuilding of a water pump station. However, as much as the locals need water, and despite the promise of pay, the Iraqis are unwilling to take part in the work. It is explained to the soldiers that while the U.S. may run the show in town during the day, they don’t control the night, and any of the locals who help the American forces will wind up in trouble. It is a serious issue the soldiers never considered and they have to find a way around it, which is just what they attempt to do.
While that may be the soldiers’ biggest stumbling block, the largest one faced by Sand Castle itself are those very same soldiers. It is clear that they are a heterogeneous mix (and only fall into some testosterone-laden stereotypes), but except for Ocre and perhaps Harper, they never feel fully fleshed out. That said, Hoult is wonderful as Ocre. The character’s individual journey from the start of the film to the end is wholly engrossing. None of the moments feel contrived or over the top in a story which could easily bend that way.
Even so, without the other soldiers in the group being as well defined, the audience ends up feeling less for their plight than it does for the people at a local school who desperately need the water the soldiers are bringing into town via tanker truck. One of the most intriguing characters whose surface is only ever scratched is Captain Syverson (Henry Cavill), a member of the Special Forces group with which Harper and his squad are staying.
Watching the soldiers distribute water to the people in Sand Castle, as with much of what takes place, is a tension-filled experience, and director Fernando Coimbra handles the moments quite well. This is a war movie, these guys are in a place where some of the locals don’t want them, there are armed and dangerous people around, and it is clear that at some point in the movie someone is going to start shooting. Coimbra makes this tension palpable and the soldiers’ fear of it real. One or two moments of heavy-handedness exist here, with the audience aware well before the soldiers are that something bad is going to happen. Excluding those few moments the rest of it works wonderfully and sharpen the film measurably.