There’s really only one way to open this review. Trigger Warning. This is 2024. It’s an election year. This is a movie called Civil War. With marketing beginning to hit fast and furious, many will have their own ideas and assumptions about director Alex Garland‘s newest picture. Is the domestic thriller a must-see or is it worthy of a mental-health miss? Know your limits and read on. 

Civil War follows a group of war correspondents traveling between New York and Washington D.C. Along the way, they contend with the resulting issues stemming from the Civil War tearing the United States apart. To be more specific, California and Texas have united in a desire to secede. It has to be fiction after all. Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny and Stephen McKinley Henderson co-star in the movie. Alex Garland directs Civil War from his own script. 

Cailee Spaeny slumps against a paint splattered wall as armed soldiers walk passed in Alex Garland's Civil War.

Truthfully, Civil War is borderline impossible to review for one reason. As a critic, I did not enjoy this movie. I don’t want to see it again. With all that being said though, I respect the heck out of this film.  

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In Civil War, Alex Garland crafts a haunting picture of the United States in turmoil. The traditionally slow-burn filmmaker grounds the movie in a gritty realism that will be hard to watch for many. This is not some alternate reality like Man in the High Castle. This is a recognizable world we’re all familiar with. It is this fact that makes Civil War so uncomfortable. This could be our reality. 

At the same time though, Garland effectively blends the ferocity of this wartime experience with the picturesque silence so common in his previous films. There are many instances where the horror of war blends into horrifyingly beautiful moments of tranquility. At many points throughout the movie, Garland finds a cinematic artistry in the violence. This could be in the light of a tracer bullet, sparks from a forest fire or even the silence after an explosion. 

Kirsten Dunst looks out of a car window, her camera trained on something out of shot in Alex Garland's Civil War.

Meanwhile, Garland walks a tricky line in his script. He makes the interesting choice to follow wartime journalists through this nightmarish reality. As such, the story remains devoid of an overt sense of politics. We learn the bare minimum about the conflict. There really isn’t a sense of who may be the “good” or the “bad” guy. The film’s political background remains largely unexplored. It isn’t interested in politics. 

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However, the fact the characters are journalists does ultimately color the film’s perspective. Some may call Civil War apolitical while others may pick up on the more in-your-face nature of the story’s point-of-view. While the script doesn’t take sides, in choosing to follow the people tasked with documenting the fighting, we recognize quickly that “war is hell.” This is what the script wants us to learn. 

This message is made repeatedly over a narrative that can best be called unrelenting. Those looking for the film’s truest cinematic experience should check this out in IMAX. From the opening scene to the final on-screen moments, Civil War doesn’t let up. It’s loud and intense. You feel this movie in every bone and every joint. 

Kirsten Dunst shields Cailee Spaeny from an explosion in Alex Garland's Civil War.

At the same time, due to the script’s very specific construction, the film doesn’t simply show every horrifying moment. It zooms in on them. The reporters make sure their cameras are trained on the executions, the mass graves, and the atrocities. All of which happen on-screen. There’s no place to hide in Civil War

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Meanwhile, we’d be shirking our duty if we didn’t take some time to call out the actors, Specifically Kirsten Dunst brings a layered and complicated performance as Lee, a veteran war photographer. Her portrayal taps into the pain and struggle inherent in their job while still showing her excitement and humanity. Dunst is certainly a treasure (especially for those of us of… a certain age) and it’s great to see her get a meaty role like this one. 

At the same time, audiences should keep an eye out for a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo from the always-incredible Jesse Plemons. The actor continues to amaze every time he steps on screen and that is no less true here. He takes control of the film during his short time on-screen and plunges deep into a challenging character. He’s firing on all cylinders to bring a terrifying reality to life and it’s fascinating to watch. Give this man all the roles. 

Kirsten Dunst stands in an ornate passage way. She wears a bullet proof vest and carries her camera on her hip in Alex Garland's Civil War.

Certain movies are going to be divisive, no “ifs” “ands” or “buts” about it. Audiences in 2024 will go into Civil War with opinions. In fact, most will argue a movie like this is probably too timely for their liking. It probably is. However, the main thing that can be said about Civil War is to know your limits. This movie isn’t fun. Truthfully, it really isn’t enjoyable. Ultimately though, this is a beautifully made, visceral and haunting picture that deserves respect.

Civil War opens in theaters around the country on Friday, April 12, 2024. 

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Kimberly Pierce
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