On one September night in 1944, two Canadian soldiers named Louis and Sylvain are patrolling the shore of a Dutch beach. But their patrol is interrupted when they discover a young boy washed up on the beach. He doesn't speak their language, and they have no idea where he is from or if he can be trusted during such perilous times.
As they draw their weapons, they debate over the boy's fate. Is he a spy that needs to be dealt with? Or is he just an innocent person caught up in the cross-hairs of geopolitical conflict? Their questions about the boy's fundamental innocence aren't just rhetorical: they hold the life and fate of the boy -- and maybe even the war itself -- in the balance.
Written and directed by Niels Bourgonje, this short historical drama is awash in darkness, from the murky night of the historical setting to the moral dilemma that the two soldiers experience as they try to figure out what to do with the boy that has washed up on the shore.
Shot in a weighty, heavy black-and-white, the look and feel immediately create an atmosphere of ominous mystery that would easily set up a stylized horror film. But the unknown isn't a monster, but a boy whose arrival comes out of nowhere, interrupting the routine patrol of two battle-weary soldiers. And though he is a human being and a young teen, he elicits the fear and anxiety of the unknown.
The film is essentially a scene of decision-making, a question over what to do with the boy. But the sparse yet evocative dialogue also reveals the attitudes and personalities of the two soldiers. Sylvain is edgy, cynical and anxious; Louis is more relaxed. When the boy washes up with a mysterious canister at his side, he is worn and scared after his ordeal.
Louis -- played by actor Craig Stott with an appealing openness -- gives the boy the benefit of a doubt. But the tension of the situation and its unknown variables pushed Sylvain to the edge. Actor Bill Barberis, aided by effective sound design, ably portrays the disassociation of a soldier whose psyche has been ravaged by too much war, and that toll causes him to respond with paranoia to the unknown. The masterful visuals that frame the action through the opening of a trigger remind us that such fear has a cost -- of human life, and maybe other unseen consequences.
Artful, tense and beautifully crafted, "Barrier" is based on a true story from 1944. And though it's a historical drama, as relayed through costumes and writing, its finely wrought, thoughtful visuals render the story in stylized black-and-white cinematography that is almost abstract. As a result, Sylvain's combination of fear, trauma and paranoia has strangely modern resonance, as an example of how we greet the unexpected and unknown on our shores. Whether the unknown is a boy washing ashore -- or more modern antecedent of refugees cast upon the beaches of Greece and Italy, or even a mysterious virus penetrating the most homespun corners of our life -- we have a range of responses to facing a possible threat. By situating this particular story in the past, though, we can understand the consequences of a response -- and imagine an alternate fate if Sylvain had given into his darker impulses. The inner conflict is perhaps part of the modern condition: a constant toggling between our recognition of mutual humanity and an urge to strike out at the unknown.