All art is personal. Even when not autobiographical in nature, we leave part of ourselves in what we create. Whether it be a painting, a piece of music, or a feature-length film, the act of creation through any medium will always be tied to the creator themselves. It is in telling a personal truth that a work of art can be molded into something that comes alive unlike anything else. This is true in the case of The Inspection, a film that is at its best when it burrows into the personal with all the pain and poetry to be found there. The Inspection is the feature debut from writer-director Elegance Bratton and is a semi-autobiographical retelling of his experiences as a gay marine. As such, it is a work that finds profundity in the specific, peeling back the layers of the character of Ellis French (Jeremy Pope) who desperately pins all his hopes for salvation in becoming a “hero” as opposed to an outcast from even his own mother (Gabrielle Union) who has distanced herself from him. Even as it frequently loses its impact when we pull away from the internal, it thrives as a cinematic memoir about the grim experience of obliterating oneself to survive.

This all begins in 2005 when we see the 25-year-old Ellis already on the cusp of such oblivion. After being kicked out of his home at 16 when he came out, he has spent the subsequent years struggling largely on his own and is now living in a shelter in New Jersey. After watching news coverage about the war that America had recently begun with the invasion of Iraq, he decides he will enlist to become a marine. This is a decision made out of desperation more than anything else as he has seen his friends die, which has instilled a fear that not only may he soon join them, but that no one will even care about his passing. Thus, he returns home to his mother Inez (Union) to get his birth certificate so he can enlist. This goodbye is also a hello as Ellis has not seen her for years and the coldness with which she treats him makes clear why. The brief conversation they have is fleeting yet tragic as we see all the various emotional fault lines threaten to reopen and explode. With a kind yet quiet resignation, Ellis then takes his leave and is whisked away to boot camp where one of the first questions shouted at him is about his sexuality. We realize that he has traded one hell for another as he is promised by the staff sergeant Laws (Bokeem Woodbine) that he will break all of them.

Image via A24

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What follows is him doing just that. Shot with a documentary-like focus on the specifics of their training, we see Ellis go through grueling physical and psychological tests. Along with his fellow enlistees, his spirit and humanity are steadily broken for the purpose of feeding the war machine. However, he is made into a specific punching bag when it becomes clear that he is gay. This was the era of “don’t ask, don’t tell” where to be anything other than straight was to be a stain on the entire operation and something you best keep quiet about. Obviously, such an order runs against all that it is to have desire and be human. The scenes where the other men all bond over nude photos of women, to which some masturbate when the lights have gone out, provides a darkly humorous juxtaposition about the way some expressions of desire are permitted while others are shamed. When we see inside the mind of Ellis where he is free to fantasize without scrutiny, it provides a brief respite from the grim reality of his day-to-day repression. This can often become violent, like when his fellow soldiers beat him in a shower as a way of asserting their own dominance and heterosexuality. It is in creating a balance between the beauty of his inner self and the brutality of the exterior world hellbent on snuffing that out where Bratton finds a fraught niche that frequently breaks free of convention.

Where things become somewhat uncertain is when we pull back from that into something more conventional. Specifically, the scenes where we are no longer with Ellis as our grounding point end up feeling hollow. One comes when Laws is challenged by his fellow instructor Rosales (Raúl Castillo) when they are out of sight of their trainees. It is clear that this is something that Ellis did not actually witness himself and, as such, it feels like Bratton is attempting to fill in gaps in his story that needn’t be filled in. The fact that there is discord among the instructors is narratively and thematically extraneous as the ritualistic training that the characters are put through remains largely the same. This is clearly meant to establish how Rosales feels bad about what he is putting them through, but it ends up becoming superficial when seen alongside the more lived-in elements of the experience. Such moments also fall back on dialogue that comes across as blunt and unsubtle in a way that dulls the greater emotional impacts of the more mesmerizing visual sequences. Even when we get back to the core of the story, these narrative diversions drag down the momentum and come across as increasingly distracting when they needn’t be there in the first place.

What ensures we get back on track is how willing Bratton is to grapple with the more thorny aspects of his time in the service. Without tipping off anything about the ending, the purpose he found in enlisting is always tempered with a more tragic undercurrent. This is both in how he had to repress so much of himself and, even before he got there, why it was this path that he felt he had to go down. Like so many others who were lost, the discipline and direction provided by the military may really have saved him. However, the cost that this took on him and the fact that it is this desperation that is fundamental to its existence is hard to overlook. The hint of salvation is always complicated by how there had to have been a broader societal failure to push Ellis down this path. Even as the film and Pope’s performance are channeled through the lens of this being what he thought he needed to do, there is a growing sense of disenchantment to it all. Despite the pomp and circumstance of it all, breaking down already broken people so that they can go out to fight the wars of America is never glamorized. It can get more than a bit muddled, but the truth of Bratton’s experience always shines through. The final shot in particular reveals how disillusionment can be interwoven throughout all his dedication. For all the work he put in, we see so much is still broken. When it arrives at such a stunning finale, The Inspection proves to be a rich work of personal introspection crossed with a wiser slice of life portrait of an era that can only come when looking back.

Rating: B

The Inspection is in theaters now.

Where to Watch The Inspection — Showtimes

The Inspection is in theaters now. For where to watch and showtimes, use the links below:

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