The opening of Fernando Coimbra’s “Sand Castle” finds Private Matt Ocre (Nicholas Hoult) putting a rag in his mouth, before repeatedly slamming a car door against his hand. “I joined the reserves for the college money,” he narrates. “I don’t belong here.” The film’s first moments are a punch to the gut — we see the blood gather on Ocre’s knuckles, and it’s hard not to wince. The moment deliberately characterizes Ocre as a reluctant soldier; in a minute and a half, we know exactly who Ocre is, and we have a reason to care about him. It is unfortunate, then, that the rest of the film doesn’t live up to its introduction, bypassing character development to offer us scenes of the Iraq War that have been better executed in innumerable films before it.
Even though Ocre is set up well, the film doesn’t do much to explore how his character grows. We see him skittish in battle, but his inexperience doesn’t have much bearing on the plot, which is a shame, because an ineffectual soldier as a war film’s main character sets up a unique premise. The film also establishes him as the smart one in a cadre of over-eager warriors, but we don’t see this uniqueness onscreen. Make no mistake, by the end of the film, Ocre has evolved as a character, but that doesn’t constitute character development because we don’t see his evolution, only its uninteresting result.
Ocre certainly isn’t the only character to be shortchanged though. After two hours, we barely know any of the characters in “Sand Castle.” Egregiously, the only emotional tether we have to Sgt. Harper (Logan Marshall-Green), one of the film’s main characters, is the knowledge that he has a fiancée back home. But even though such background information proves inconsequential, this character is more fleshed out than most. “Sand Castle” is populated with stereotypical war film staples — the gruff, no-nonsense Capt. Syverson (Henry Cavill), the gruff, no-nonsense Sgt. Chutsky (Glen Powell) and, in a stunning turn of events, the gruff, no-nonsense Sgt. Burton (Beau Knapp). Most Twitter bios have more personality than this film. Indeed, Henry Cavill, as a human being, has more personality than this film.
Because the film features actors in costumes rather than as characters, one really couldn’t care less about what happens to them. The film focuses on Ocre and his platoon’s attempt to repair a water system in a dangerous city, their last assignment before returning home. Regular attacks hinder their progress, but they seem insignificant when bland characters don’t allow for engaging stakes. Rather than being exciting or viscerally affecting, the violence in “Sand Castle” feels overbearing and serves only to shock the viewer without accomplishing much else. Worse yet, such violence feels cheap and obligatory, as if one or two deaths here, a gruesome image there and a sudden explosion thrown in the mix are war film requisites, rather than vehicles to further the narrative. Even if the film is attempting something abstract such as establishing a theme, then it does so in such a banal way, that all we get is a platitude. “War is hell,” but we didn’t need “Sand Castle” to tell us that.
“Sand Castle” is based on the experiences of its screenwriter, Chris Roessner, himself a former soldier. Ocre has a character arc that could have been complex, which is a credit to Roessner. In fact, there are some moments in the film that are actually quite good, such as a meal that the soldiers share with some villagers when they take a break from repairing the water system. It is a moment of mutual understanding that brings some heart to the film. Such moments are few and far between, however. Even if Roessner’s experiences bring authenticity to the film, the story he tells falters.
While the overall quality of the film doesn’t necessarily change or reflect the validity of Roessner’s experiences as a veteran, it is a shame to see what could have been a fascinating film with a unique premise suffer because of uninteresting, underwritten characters.
“Sand Castle” is now streaming on Netflix.
Harrison Tunggal covers film. Contact him at [email protected].