Writer-director Elegance Bratton makes a promising, passionate narrative debut with The Inspection, a film loosely inspired by his own story as a gay man joining the military, a tough, self-flagellating process for someone who had only experienced his sexuality as punishment.
His previous film, the documentary Pier Kids about three homeless LGBTQ+ youths in Manhattan, had already intersected with his own experience as someone who was also queer and homeless but here he zeroes in more acutely, making Ellis (stage star Jeremy Pope) a double for himself at 25, rejected by his cruel, religious mother (Gabrielle Union) and living in a shelter in New Jersey. It’s 2005 and driven by a need to feel like his life matters, he follows wall-to-wall news coverage of the war on terror all the way to the Marine Corps, an act of desperation that he hopes will save him.
It was a time when “don’t ask, don’t tell” was still in operation and Ellis, now known by his surname French by those around him, was forcing himself back into the closet in order to survive and it’s in that gap between what he wants to be and wants to be seen as that the film finds its groove.
The recently released trailer promised some rather obvious melodrama but Bratton’s film is mostly more sensitive than its marketeers would like to have you think. It’s a film light on big moments and big speeches, interested more in the difficulty of the everyday, how a queer man navigates a world of aggressive chest-puffing masculinity when his need to be held might outweigh his need to be accepted.
It’s in the film’s queerest moments that things feel most inventive, narratively and visually, as Bratton steps most firmly outside of the hemmed-in army drama formula and finds ways to make his film sit and thrive in the Venn diagram between military machismo and homoeroticism. The physical intimacy, the sweaty over-exertion, how it all can seem one, thrilling touch away from being sexual and the danger within that closeness, how something can be misconstrued by your mind or your body. Purple lighting and a pulsing score suddenly turn the barracks into a gay club and in one bold scene, Ellis’s shower fantasy cruelly intersects with reality and he finds himself erect, surrounded by the other men. It brings things crashing down early, quickly painting Ellis as an outcast, an experience he’s all too used to, but Bratton doesn’t drown us in the misery of it, flashes of humour and sensuality keeping his film light-footed, if not exactly light.
Pope’s performance is also key to this, his natural queerness and how he chooses to handle or hide it in a situation like this, adding an extra level of texture to a story that’s already come from a lived-in experience. I don’t believe in the strictness some enforce when it comes to the rule of only queer actors playing queer people but Pope’s delicate and deft work here is an example of why sometimes, the mirroring can work so perfectly. His little hidden asides, when he allows himself to just be, without the survivalist self-censoring, are both amusing and sad, and it’s a film that should propel him into the bigger leagues with ease. The pre-written take on Union de-glamming and knuckling down was that this would be her late-stage Oscar grab, a narrative that works better on paper than on screen. She’s good, especially in her first scene, wielding a stinging severity that some actors would either shy away from or ham up, but there’s too little screen-time, to Bratton’s credit, for it to fall in line with the pipe dream.
There’s successful snarling from an ever-dependable Bokeem Woodbine as Ellis’s cruel general and a hard-to-pin-down tenderness from Raúl Castillo as the good cop to his bad but they mostly exist in the stretches that prove to be far less compelling. Bratton can’t help but fall into tired military convention and there’s too much here that we’ve seen too many times before, with little to distinguish. The breaking down of a young man, the interpersonal man-to-man conflicts with others, the savagery of military life, it’s a story we’re all overly, perhaps boringly familiar with.
Like the version we see of his younger self, Bratton’s film is also stuck between these two worlds, one feeling more curious and creative, the other cliched and constructed. His confidence as a film-maker might ultimately outpace his ability as a writer in the last act, but The Inspection still marks him out as one to watch.
The Inspection screened at the Toronto film festival; it will be released in the US on 18 November and in the UK on 17 February.