Writer-director Elegance Bratton delivers on the promise of his short films Buck and Walk for Me, as well as the documentary Pier Kids, with his emotionally potent narrative feature debut The Inspection, which received its world premiere at the 47th Toronto International Film Festival as the opening night selection of the Discovery section. Inspired by events in Bratton’s own life (and dedicated to his mother), as the film opens in 2005 we meet a 25-year-old Black queer man, Ellis French (Jeremy Pope), who has been living in a state of housing insecurity since being disowned as a teen by his prison officer mother, Inez (Gabrielle Union), because of his sexuality. Struggling with a precarious and directionless existence, Ellis decides to enlist in the Marines and pays Inez a visit at her New Jersey home to share the news.
With a cross behind her, in a home filled with the sounds of Christian speech radio, Inez tells her son that she’s at peace with having rejected him and appears to be unimpressed by his attempt to bring order and meaning to his life by joining the military, saying that if anything should change it should be his “lifestyle”. It’s a scene that reveals so much about the history of their relationship and the home he grew up in, with spare but telling dialogue and nuanced performances by Pope and Union, both offering work worthy of serious consideration this awards season.
As Ellis arrives at bootcamp along with his fellow recruits, they’re greeted by an aggressive verbal onslaught from the intimidating men who will train them, including staff-sergeant drill instructor Laws (a complex and commanding turn by Bokeem Woodbine) and his assistant Rosales (Raúl Castillo delivering a typically subtle and affecting work); with Laws yelling “I will break you, I promise”. Bratton isn’t interested in villainizing anyone though, and instead enables us to find a degree of empathy with every character, even those who engage in some reprehensible behaviour.
The grueling thirteen-week training program that follows has been explored on screen before, most memorably in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, although Laws says Jarhead is the only authentic film about the Marines. What makes The Inspection unique is its powerful framing of the narrative through Ellis’ relationship with his mother, imbuing his time in training with the poignant significance of how her rejection of her son has shaped him. Similarly striking is Bratton’s centering of a young Black queer homeless man, with Pope appearing in almost every scene. There’s a particularly touching moment early on—which gives dignity and humanity to men who are usually discarded or ignored—when an older Black queer man, Shamus (Tyler Merritt) who is living in temporary accommodation with Ellis, shows the younger man some kindly affection and concern.
Although there’s a well-sustained intensity to French’s time in training, including some disturbing displays of homophobia and Islamophobia in this era of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” in the midst of George W. Bush’s continued post-9/11 “war on terror”, there is humour too, particularly in the early part of the film, which dissipates as the training becomes more brutal. What remains throughout is our strong emotional connection to French, so tightly wound from years of having to keep his guard up and protect himself, yet managing to retain his warmth and vulnerability. All of which is beautifully captured by Pope as a man being pushed beyond his limits as the training almost kills him (literally), but doesn’t break his spirit or change who he is at his core. In the thick of the often dehumanizing training, there’s compassion in the way that French looks out for his fellow recruit Ismail (Eman Esfandi), and in turn a tenderness in how Rosales watches over French. The palpable sexual tension between the latter explodes in a visually stunning, and very hot, military fantasy sequence that breaks with the film’s moody colour palette.
There’s a captivating, visceral rawness and immediacy to Lachlan Milne’s exceptional cinematography, often keeping the camera close to Pope’s wonderfully expressive face. While Animal Collective’s haunting and unsettling score is thrillingly eclectic. Deeply moving at times, Bratton delivers a delicate film set in an oppressive environment that’s ultimately a testament to the endurance of the human spirit and the power of acceptance and showing humanity to those whom we encounter in our lives—including our offsrping—and the damage that can happen when we don’t.
By James Kleinmann
The Inspection received its world premiere at the 47th Toronto International Film Festival and will receive a US theatrical release from A24 on November 18th 2022.