Sam Mendes' 1917 is a war film, yes, but also a horror film in the truest sense of the word. Death lurks behind every corner: arbitrary, horrific, and unavoidable.
The movie follows—quite literally, since it is shot and edited to appear as a single, uncut take—two young British soldiers (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) tasked with delivering a critical message. Ten miles away, some 16,000 of their countrymen are about to launch an offensive against what appears to be a retreating German army. But new intelligence shows they will actually be charging toward new, unassailable fortifications—what World War I buffs will recognize as the Hindenburg Line. With the clock ticking, the two boys set off across no man's land and through the abandoned German trenches to stop an impending slaughter.
What follows is a stunning piece of moviemaking, thanks to Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins. The middle third, in which the war-torn fields of Flanders fade into night and are replaced by the hellscape of a ruined village bathed in artillery fire, is shattering and unforgettable.
As beautiful as it is to look at, 1917 is difficult to watch. It pulls no punches about the bloody, brutal reality of war. In an era when drone strikes and long-range missiles have semi-sanitized the act of murdering other people over territorial or ideological disputes, that makes the film's message even more essential.