“’71 offers the latest test case for that never-ending question of whether it’s possible to wring white-knuckle entertainment out of a painful real-life atrocity without veering into crass exploitation,” begins Kenji Fujishima at Slant. “Yann Demange’s debut follows the Paul Greengrass stylistic playbook in many ways: shaky-cam handheld aesthetic, broad characterizations, and an overall attention to gritty realism. But it distinguishes itself from Greengrass’s films by virtue of its close attention to political and moral ambiguities; unlike Greengrass, Demange isn’t content to let the nuances of his material take care of themselves.”
“Unfolding largely over one very long day and night in Belfast during the year of its title, it follows a fresh-faced British soldier thrust into a divided city whose peace he’s in no way prepared to keep,” explains Michael Nordine at the House Next Door. “Movies about the Troubles have a strangely high success rate (In the Name of the Father, The Crying Game, The Boxer, and last year’s Shadow Dancer all come immediately to mind), yet Yann Demange’s directorial debut stands out even within that distinguished company for its hauntingly immersive atmosphere and minute-to-minute urgency…. Demange does the opposite of what’s currently en vogue for films of ‘71‘s ilk by making chaotic situations comprehensible, shooting impromptu skirmishes and foot-chases with a clarity that makes them all the more terrifying.”
“Playing a macho with soft guts, Jack O’Connell is given considerably less to do here than in his impressive, charismatic turn as a juvenile delinquent in last month’s Starred Up,” finds Sarah Salovaara at Filmmaker. “Punctuated by gimmicks that include freckled-faced, red-headed little militants and war ravaged citizens inexplicably overcome with mercy when it’s time to pull the trigger, ’71 boasts its fair share of transparent conveniences. It works as an action film insofar as I was constantly anticipating when the next bomb was about to blow and who was going to make it out alive, but its suggestion that army men and secret police alike are desperate to do whatever it takes to stay alive is less than revelatory.”
“TV-trained director Demange makes his feature debut here with a style that’s assured, but otherwise unremarkable,” writes Kiva Reardon for Cinema Scope. “The action sequences are well composed and the violence and gore are suitably realistic; O’Connell gets gamely and convincingly pummeled time and again. For a thriller, the film is fine and easily digestible, which is precisely the problem. ’71 takes an ethno-nationalist conflict rooted in hundreds of years of colonialist history and makes it beige, apolitical and gutless.”
“On the political side, ’71 feels entirely agnostic,” grants Todd Brown at Twitch. “‘It’s a confused situation,’ one character deadpans at the midpoint… and that appears to be about the sum of it… O’Connell’s Gary is our gateway to this experience…, a sort of blank slate, a cypher, for the audience to project itself on to and to experience the world themselves as he experiences it. This is a ballsy move by Demange, one which demands great things both of himself and of O’Connell in the lead and both pull it off remarkably well.”
At Gay City News, Steve Erickson notes that “the plot is basically lifted from Carol Reed’s classic Odd Man Out…. What’s novel about this film is its physicality. CGI has made cinematic bloodshed increasingly antiseptic, but Demange restores grit and dirt to it…. It may be set 43 years ago and inspired by an even earlier movie, but the depiction of imperial arrogance wandering into another culture’s sectarian warfare couldn’t be more current.”
“If the body count weren’t evidence enough of the futility of it all, the bleak Belfast neighborhoods here look like the valley of the damned,” writes David D’Arcy at Artinfo. “’71 is as promising a debut as I’ve seen in years.”
“’71, though somewhat diminished by a trite ending, fluidly and potently stages its never-ending chaos, mayhem born of expedient, deadly alliances,” writes Melissa Anderson for Artforum.
“It’s a powerful portrait of needless bloodshed, despite an irritating and omnipresent David Holmes score,” writes Ben Kenigsberg at the AV Club.
For Nathaniel Rogers, “’71 is reminiscent of both Black Hawk Down (2001) and The Hurt Locker (2009) but without the movie-movie bravado of the former or the psychological depth of the latter.”
Update, 10/1: At Reverse Shot, Danny King writes that “though Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday (2002) stands out as a clear precedent, ‘71, at its best, refrains from the reportage-like realism that defines the Greengrass style for something more expressive and subjective. The most daring sequence in the film occurs after a bomb reduces a pub to rubble. Given that the explosion, in narrative terms, is a surprise, a more conventional director might have concluded the scene with it, sending the viewer into the next scene in a bit of a shell-shocked state. But Demange holds this moment for much, much longer, following a bleary, bloodied Hook as he gets up from the ground, assesses the damage, and stumbles through the nighttime alleyways. The camera, complemented by the disoriented sound design, mimics Hook’s mental state, moving in and out of focus at random intervals. The time Demange devotes to this aftermath divulges his investment in Hook’s subjectivity.”
Update, 10/7: “As the human face of the ‘long war,’ O’Connell is perfectly cast,” writes Adam Woodward at Little White Lies: “he is by turns tough and vulnerable, equally convincing as an aggressor and victim. This is not a history lesson but more a story of one young man’s education, and O’Connell, in yet another demanding leading role, absolutely nails it.” Woodward also has Demange talk “us through the meticulous construction of one of the film’s pivotal action sequences.”
Update, 10/11: “Gregory Burke’s script, essentially adept in the way it seizes on West Belfast as a microcosm of the wider Troubles, gets good mileage out of this innocent-grunt-abroad material before it necessarily moves on to detail the surrounding sociopolitical landscape,” writes Trevor Johnston for Sight & Sound. “His dialogue is spot-on, and he certainly gets the tribalism right. The little boy on the Loyalist barricade who asks Hook whether he’s a Protestant or a Catholic might seem schematic to the outsider, but my memories of growing up in the east of the city during the same dark era confirm that purposely divisive them-and-us indoctrination was standard Ulster practice.”
Update, 10/13: “’71 is more than just an apolitical genre exercise,” argues Tim Wainwright at Criticwire. “A creased veteran doctor sums up the film’s outlook in the third act: War’s just ‘rich cunts telling thick cunts to kill poor cunts.'”