‘Civil War’ Review: Kirsten Dunst Is Outstanding in Alex Garland’s Fraught and Fascinating Epic

The latest from the filmmaker behind ‘Ex Machina’ and ‘Annihilation’ is unlike anything he has ever done before

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Kirsten Dunst in "Civil War" (A24)

If one is to engage honestly with “Civil War,’ one must also engage with the state of journalism. It is impossible not to in a country that has seen fascism rear its ugly head and reactionary conspiracies take hold in response to cascading existential crises. In the case of “Civil War” it culminates in violence that consumes the country.

That journalism is often seen as the solution to all of this, as if capturing the truth will somehow change things by showing what is happening, represents a central tension at the heart of this fascinating feature. It is a film that is both aware of its own limitations and in a fight to escape them. It’s a reflection on the human cost of this work just as it is a grim look at how little it may end up truly mattering. It’s also nothing like what anyone could have expected based on the first look we got of it.

From the minute the first trailer dropped the takes were beginning to fly as everyone tried to make sense of what writer/director Alex Garland was getting himself into. California and Texas are aligning against the rest of the country? Nick Offerman is president? At the core of these questions was a dangerous assumption that conflict from within could not and will not happen now. And yet, that is exactly what happens. Whether you buy into this or not is something Garland is uninterested in as he doesn’t attempt to explain anything. In many regards, it’s best when he doesn’t as truth in the eyes of his characters is what matters.

“Civil War” follows a group of journalists. At the center of this is veteran war photographer Lee, played by an understated yet completely enthralling Kirsten Dunst, who has seen more death than many would in a lifetime. Now, she must cover a conflict in her own country and grapple with what this means. She takes aspiring young photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) under her wing as she plans to travel across the country with her colleagues Joel (Wagner Moura) and Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) to interview the president (Offerman) before what is believed to be the violent end of his regime.

While nice to see that journalism still exists in this dystopian future, with people risking their lives in search of truth, it becomes clear this is no romantic portrait of the profession. There is an inherent sense of questioning about both its utility and whether the toll it takes on those who do it is worth it. It feels like Garland considers himself to be a photojournalist, with the film often cutting to the moments captured by the characters’ camera at moments of brutality and death.

Initially, Jessie is terrified of the violence and understandably traumatized when they come upon a gas station where two people have been lynched. However, the more she is immersed in it the less she seems bothered. This grim reality sinks in without Garland making a big show of it. It becomes hauntingly natural, where the roar of gunfire drowns out any excitement to be had.

The immersive sound design is punishing, shattering through moments of quiet without remorse. This is not a blockbuster that revels in the excitement of shootouts. It instead is about how this destroys everything and everyone. When you take a photo of this to share with the world, does it make any difference or is it just capturing the moment of destruction so it can be immortalized?

This can all sound very heady written out, but the film is also a road trip movie that goes out of its way to couch its ideas in more familiar emotional beats. Some of this lands flat, like in an encounter on the road with characters jumping in and out of cars for some reason, though what follows this scene is devastatingly tense. Jesse Plemons pops up, bringing the appropriate level of menace and darkness in even the simplest of moves. All of the cast are similarly sharp, with Henderson and Spaney giving heartfelt performances in a reunion from Garland’s underrated series “Devs,” though this remains Dunst’s movie. While she has always done great work this is up there as one of her most focused performances.

At one moment on their trip, Lee discusses how she thought the photos she would take in various war zones might convince people back home to avoid the similar cost of such a conflict. As Garland shows more and more, she becomes fundamentally disillusioned with this. Dunst is terrific in these moments, capturing the way Lee has hardened herself against the traumas in order to endure. Just as cracks begin to form in her belief about what she is doing, the shell she has built starts to break into pieces until she can no longer hold herself together.

She does so through an almost sheer force of will, but the way we see the pain still bursting out in Dunst’s eyes is where the film finds its greatest emotional resonances. It is a film about journalistic ethics and, in its own way, the interpretation of images is grounded in her outstanding performance. It isn’t an easy role to inhabit, but she does so perfectly.

There is a lot that feels more scattered, with some of the musical choices feeling a little incongruous when silence would carry a greater impact, but that all ends up being water under the bridge. It isn’t Garland’s best film by any means, but it is his most unexpectedly interesting. There is a good chance that those looking for straight action will feel disconnected from it, but that increasingly proves to be the point. As Garland captures the intense violence and death with his own camera, there is a coldness to it that almost feels dehumanizing.

That a recurring conversation is had about whether the various journalists would take a photo of the other in the event of their death makes it clear that he doesn’t view this as some sort of neutral act. It is him acknowledging the relationship he has with the audience as being something he can’t control. Is there something inherently extractive and dehumanizing to capturing someone in this way at this moment? When Lee deletes one such photo, seemingly out of respect for the person they once were, it feels like Garland is leaning towards yes.

The future of America and journalism remains uncertain, subject to the efforts of those trying to bring truth to light, just as it is to those intent on using violent subjugation for their own ends. It is unlikely the grim vision Garland puts forth in “Civil War” will come to pass in exactly the way it is presented here yet the questions about journalism, ethics and whether it all matters remain.

A movie, even a surprisingly pretty good one like this, won’t provide all the answers to these existential issues nor does it to seek to. What it can do, amidst the cacophony of explosions, is meaningfully hold up a mirror. Though the portrait we get is broken and fragmented, in its final moments “Civil War” still manages to uncover an ugly yet necessary truth in the rubble of the old world. Garland gets that great final shot, but at what cost?

A24 will release “Civil War” in theaters on April 12.

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