Defiance feels like a film that’s trying too hard to be epic and wholly entertaining, but is trying so hard that we notice its efforts and can only bow our head in shame of how badly it wants to please us. At one point in the film, Daniel Craig gets on top of a horse in order to deliver a speech that’s supposed to be inspirational not only to the group he’s presenting it to, but also to us, the audience of the film. But he’s on the horse only for this reason, and it only comes into play one other time, later in the film — not before. We’re distracted by the horse’s involvement that it’s hard to take what Craig is saying seriously, and it’s here that we realize Defiance is trying too hard. And then there’s still an hour more to go for us to fully realize this belief.
This doesn’t necessarily make it a bad film, and we can certainly appreciate the effort given here, but it does take away some of the drama from something with as heavy a subject as the Holocaust. The film stars Daniel Craig as Tuvia Bielski and Liev Schreiber as his brother Zus. Zus begins the film as the only adult on-screen, and when he arrives home, he finds his parents slaughtered in their home. He heads to the forest, where he meets Tuvia, and the two begin to make camp. They’re joined by other fleeing Jews, and then more, before they’ve got a small colony on their hands.
There’s a couple of problems with trying to get a large number of people to survive in the middle of a forest. Firstly, and probably most importantly, food was scarce when it was only the two brothers and their close family. Feeding dozens and then hundreds of people isn’t going to be easy. There’s also the fact that some of these people are old or sick, which means that if Nazis find them, it’s going to be difficult to flee without severe casualties. Zus knows this, and wants to team up with the Russians and fight, while Tuvia just wants to survive, taking a more pacifist (and humane) approach.
Of course, this ideological difference ends in the two fighting about who’s in charge, what they should do next, how they will survive, and even if they should kill a man delivering milk to the Germans (under punishment of death if he didn’t comply, obviously). You won’t be surprised when this is resolved rather suddenly, nor will you be surprised by how it is solved, but suffice to say that it is.
But that’s about as deep as the story gets. These people have to survive for months, and that includes winter. The scenes that are snow-covered were the worst of the picture, so take comfort in the fact that this segment is also the shortest part. They’re not enjoyable because the characters can’t do anything other than huddle around a fire the whole time, as there is supposed to be the threat of freezing to death ever-present (although freezing is only really shown in one scene, and the rest of the time, they don’t seem that cold).
This is a true story, so the opening scene tells us, although simple research tells me that the brothers weren’t presented all that accurately. I didn’t care, as these types of liberties need to be taken when making a film, but I did care about how they were altered. In real life, so I’ve been told, these people were not simply the heroes they’re presented as in the film. They were complex people, who often did not act for the good of the whole group. What we’re given are simple characters who just want to survive in fairly harsh conditions — action heroes stuck in a drama. This isn’t nearly as interesting, especially because Defiance isn’t an action film, despite very much wishing to be.
There are action scenes. Seemingly whenever director Edward Zwick wants to, he’ll drop one or many Nazis into the mix, just so that we can have a shootout scene or two. While this doesn’t get boring, it seems like an excuse just to have gunfights. They’re not poorly made action scenes, but they fly by and end up serving breaking up the tale of survival by a group of people — something that’s actually more interesting. It also ends with a larger shootout, one where our group is overmatched and outnumbered. Right when it started, I knew how it was going to end. I hoped I was wrong, and I hoped that the film had the guts to subvert a cliché with the ending scenes, but I wasn’t wrong.
For the most part, Defiance works. It balances a tricky maneuver in having romance stories, a coming-of-age story and being a war movie about a group of survivors. There’s an entire community of people, with the ones we get to meet being memorable characters with unique personalities. It stays entertaining because there’s an enemy that can drop by at any time, and because most of these people are vulnerable and won’t be able to defend themselves. And Daniel Craig delivering a speech on a horse is fairly epic in its own right, distracting as it might be.
But, it fails in trying to be too good for what it is. There are moments set-up, and then nothing is done with them, or others that are set-up for the one scene, and then they’re done with, never to be mentioned again. At one point in the film, Tuvia is burdened with a cough that starts getting worse. Is he okay? We question this, but then it’s resolved in an instant, and we find out it was just a cold. What was the point in this? It allows him to meet a female, but that could have easily been done in a better way, instead of emasculating him and making us question whether or not he’s fit to lead this group of people.
Like I said though, Defiance does work, it just seems like it’s trying to please the audience by doing more than it needs to. That’s its main problem, and it’s a distracting one. But the action is fine, if clichéd, and the story is one that is interesting and worth telling. It’s a solid war movie that will keep you entertained for more than two hours, even if it’s not as epic as it clearly wants to be.