The Austin Chronicle

The Inspection

Rated R, 95 min. Directed by Elegance Bratton. Starring Jeremy Pope, Gabrielle Union, Bokeem Woodbine, Raúl Castillo, McCaul Lombardi, Eman Esfandi.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Nov. 25, 2022

Military dramas tend to be either blithely and blindly jingoistic or aggressive indictments of the very concept of war. The Inspection is closer to something like A Few Good Men: an internalized debate about the experience of being within a regulated, regimented culture.

Drawing on writer/director Elegance Bratton's own experiences as a queer Black man in the Marines, The Inspection boards the bus to boot camp with Ellis (Pope), a 26-year-old who sees the Marine Corps as his last chance at a life. A tragic future is augured for him by a fellow resident of the shelter in which he's spent parts of the last decade, who warns him, one Black queer to another, to never come back. Ellis' sole stop on the way to the sweaty South is to see his mom (a cantankerous, tough-love Union, her heart filled with faith and venom), whose approval is all he seeks. The path he sees to that reunion goes through basic training, and The Inspection goes through every grueling, degrading moment of the process.

There's method to the dehumanization going on, especially when it comes to how everyone in the barracks handles knowing that Ellis is gay, even if he never admits to or discusses it. Physical assaults, both sanctioned and ignored by his commanding officers, are part of the regimen, with nothing to be done except ignore them. This is an isolated world, and Minari cinematographer Lachlan Milne works with Bratton to create an environment that can switch from mud-soaked brutality to breeze-block tedium, one that feels like it lasts to the horizon while still being constantly claustrophobic.

Some elements may seem familiar, with the conflict between the savagery of drill sergeant Laws (a scorched-earth performance from Woodbine) and the more compassionate Rosales (Castillo) echoing the gunfire between Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe in Platoon. But then, that film was based on Oliver Stone's own experiences, and maybe these are just the roles that people fall into as part of the necessity of the process. Bratton isn't interested in taking positions about the right or wrong of the military mindset, but more in asking questions of passing and acceptance. In The Inspection, "don't ask, don't tell" is a way to weed out recruits, but once they're in place it becomes a protective code of silence. The bunk room gets emptier, washouts simply disappearing rather than being given some big emotional send-off speech, their absence denoting the survival of those left. Does Laws abuse Ellis, curse him, throw homophobic slurs because he wants him out or because that's the weak spot that he can probe? Is it different than calling a recruit fat or stupid, or throwing racial and religious epithets at the troupe's sole Muslim, Ismail (Esfandi)? Is Ellis valiant for enduring, or for rebelling?

Bratton isn't providing answers, but instead testing our own responses: Indeed, there's arguably more of Laws than Rosales in his own storytelling technique. Only when The Inspection is complete does it truly reveal itself: a powerful, poignant, and complicated look at what people will do for acceptance.

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