This is the week that movies playing the Oscar-nomination game have to put up or shut up. The nominations are revealed on Jan. 22, and movies with lofty ambitions need to be in theaters by then to gain traction. If they get nominations, people already know where they’re playing. And if they don’t, they’ve at least had a week to try to build local word-of-mouth to survive.
In Defiance, director Edward Zwick (Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai) tells the true story — based on a book by Nechama Tec — of the Bielski brothers, who escaped the Holocaust by forming a Jewish partisan force, a displaced community that included civilian refugees, in the woods in what now is Belarus.
They not only survived but also proved effective fighters against both the invading Nazis and their local collaborators. As the two adult Bielski brothers (Jamie Bell plays a younger brother, Asael), Daniel Craig as Tuvia and Liev Schreiber as Zus give tough, taut and gripping performances. Craig displays the same kind of no-nonsense, clearheaded intensity he has used to revive the James Bond franchise. But Schreiber, once so comically nebbishy in early films like Daytrippers, has really become a mensch here, his character’s resolute strength leavened by wry wisdom.
Zwick, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Clayton Frohman, successfully achieves a tense but brotherly dynamic between them, especially as Zus goes off to fight with the Soviets — also operating in the woods — while Tuvia stays to lead his Jewish forest community.
Zwick creates a palpably realistic world within the forest, where people are constantly tested — by attacking wolves as well as by each other. And as in Blood Diamond, he films muscular, frighteningly believable action scenes — with one notable exception. Yet also like Blood Diamond, he lets people talk too much as a way to explain themselves and their political situation.
Still, the film’s world is generally believable, even if you sometimes need a map to make sense of the greater geography and everyone’s comings and goings. But the final battle scene, supposedly the film’s climax, comes off as rushed, inauthentic and inconclusive. It makes you wonder how a film can get this far and then come up short. Grade: B-
Opens Jan. 16. Check out theaters and show times, see the film's trailer and find nearby bars and restaurants here.