By Elias Savada.

Dystopia never looked so depressing.”

It’s not a far cry — from today’s escalating political dissention that is breaking apart friends and family — to the near-future possibility that is Alex Garland’s bleak world view in Civil War. It’s a savage and savaged county (not unlike the cluttered broken-car highway landscapes familiar to fans of the Living Dead series) where the United States is fighting itself and the economy is shattered – where $300 for half a tank of gas is apparently the norm…and only if you’re paying cash in Canadian dollars.

Dystopia never looked so depressing.

After his phenomenal screenwriting debut with the Danny Boyle-directed 28 Days Later, Garland has become better known for directing cautionary sci-fi tales such as Ex Machina, Annihilation, and the 8-episode television adventure Devs. His latest dehumanizing effort is a mind-numbing and ear-deafening excursion into the worst possible outcome from the MAGA movement. It embraces all the memes and meanness that the Republican party has incorporated into its infuriating platform, but stubbornly refuses to connect all the dots of blame. I can’t help but truly wonder if this film is a work of fiction or just a foretelling of our years ahead.

Garland’s script centers on a group of war correspondents who find their road trip to Washington, D.C., fraught with psychological land mines and more than a few dramatic roadside distractions. Combat photographer Lee Cullen (Kirsten Dunst), named by the writer-director after admired photojournalists Lee Miller and Don McCullin, is weary yet determined to follow the war’s course. Her partner from Reuters is Joel (Wagner Moura), who remains more upbeat, but then he also tends to embrace alcohol and grass in enough doses to numb the reality around him. After surviving a rebel blast in New York City, the pair hesitantly reveal to veteran reporter Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) their seemingly futile but scoop-worthy attempt to interview the president (Nick Offerman) in Washington. It’s only referred to as D.C. in the film, and I wondered if it was the real capital because when their trip begins the mileage distance flashed on the screen is 4 times the current range. Viewers should assume that more than the downing of the Francis Scott Key Bridge is part of Garland’s highway diversions that takes them on a wide detour that lands them deep into Western Forces terrain.

Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons Star in Shocking 'Civil War' Trailer — Watch

Also aboard is rookie camerawoman, Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a young, innocent, but dogged wannabe who still uses photographic film. Black-and-white no less! Lee reluctantly sees her younger self in the girl, raw with energy, and the veteran quickly offers up mother hen instincts to this baby chick. Yet, as the atrocities mount and the PTSD sets in, those roles blur.

The rebel factions that have taken aim at the White House, where the commander-in-chief is trying and failing to unite what remaining support he can gather, are drawn with a general vagueness, yet are resolute and well-armed (planes, tanks, and armored vehicles roar through the IMAX-wide (yet poignantly intimate) vista. It’s hard to pinpoint if anyone is of a right mind here, and the racist tones fester up some gut-wrenching moments. This is particularly evident in a pivotal scene involving an unnamed soldier (Jesse Plemons) who is playing out his own holocaust scenario. It’s a nightmarish situation for the observers and one that will leave everyone (on screen and watching it) in shellshocked disbelief. This will be Garland’s defining moment in the film, and possibly his career.

I wasn’t much of a fan for last year’s Priscilla. Spaeny was excellent in the title role, but her work in Civil War showcases a talented artist excelling in a career-altering role. Dunst grows more impressive the film progresses, with her cheeks growing sallow and her vibrancy is defeated as the war’s barrage arrives at massively fortified 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The in-your-face documentary-style naturalism in this boldly anti-war statement will deaden your senses with its pulsating climax as D.C. comes under siege. As someone who has lived and worked its suburbs, I can vouch for some of the eerie authenticity as the Executive Office Building comes into focus when troops advance down 17th Street.

The behind-the-camera technicians are masterful, particularly Rob Hardy, Garland’s frequent collaborator as his director of photography. The hand-held camerawork brings this war into your lap, probably the last place you want it but exactly where Garland sets it.

This is a road movie like no other.

Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with the late David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).

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