Ellis French (Jeremy Pope) is out of options. He’s spent over five years living homeless on the streets of New Jersey after his mother (Gabrielle Union) kicked him out for being gay. He’s destitute, infrequently running afoul of the law, and his friends are either dead or sliding into destructive cycles of addiction. In 2005 America, he’s left with pretty much no choice other than to join the Marine Corps, reasoning that he’d prefer to “die a hero” bringing glory to his family rather than as “another homeless f*ggot”.
Of course, this being 2005 America, he’s joining one of the nation’s most institutionally homophobic branches during the height of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” – the very first barrage of questions screamed in the faces of new recruits by their superiors include “have you ever been convicted of a felony? Have you ever been a part of a terror cell? Are you now or have you ever been a homosexual?”.
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Marine boot camp is based around breaking every man who steps through its doors with aggressively hetero toxic masculinity, seizing upon any perceived weakness and often literally beating it out of the victim. Homosexuality comes under that umbrella and the first time Ellis unconsciously outs himself, sprouting an erection from daydreaming in the shower about the attractive men he’s going through training with, the response is swift and merciless.
Even before then, one could perhaps read Ellis’ choice to join the Marines as either trying to suppress his homosexuality – lying to one of his fellow recruits about using his one phone call on his “girlfriend” with (bad) attempts at straight-talk but in actuality trying to call his mom – or a subliminal death-wish. Jeremy Pope’s cagey, nervous performance works to provide that additional psychological nuance, especially when Ellis finds himself drawn to one of his commanding officers, Rosales (Raúl Castillo), and becomes torn between acting on those feelings or ignoring them.
In many respects, writer-director Elegance Bratton’s narrative feature debut, The Inspection, reminds me of Desiree Akhavan’s phenomenal adaptation of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which followed a group of queer teenagers shipped off to a mid-90s conversion camp. Both works are critical of the monstrous homophobia and emotional terrorism their institutions are designed to instil in their charges – Ellis’ head instructor, Leland Laws (a truly hateful Bokeem Woodbine), even tries to drown him during an exercise at one point in an effort to drive Ellis out. But they’re also aware of the unexpected community these institutions can ironically foster in ways which, in certain cases, can actually retrench a pupil’s queerness.
Cameron finds a queer community at her conversion camp that she simply couldn’t in her small rural Texas town and, in doing so, becomes more certain that she is a lesbian rather than it being a “phase” or “mistake”. Likewise, Ellis gradually finds himself some brothers in arms whom, in Muslim recruit Ismail’s (Eman Esfandi) case, he can rely on and vice versa with vulnerability the world has otherwise tried to stamp out of him. He refuses to give up since that would mean the homophobes and bullies win, and comes out the other side more capable of fighting for his worth but still resolutely himself; like, as Leland problematically puts it during the final tests, “being able to f*g up camo paint”.
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That said, it’s an imperfect comparison. As much as Cameron Post gained its power (and dark humour) from depicting that unexpected community, Akhavan was nonetheless unsparing about the very real emotional and physical damages that conversion camps and institutional homo/trans/queerphobia inflict upon everyone who walks through their gates. For all that Cameron gets out of her time there, Akhavan does not allow it to overshadow just how much the institution breaks down even the strongest and its fundamental evilness. Resultantly, Cameron Post is neither queer misery porn nor a boilerplate queer resilience tale and ends up all the more transcendent for that complexity.
By contrast, and despite trying to similarly be unsparing in its depiction of mid-00s military homophobia, The Inspection stops short of fully critiquing its own system, wrapping up in a mostly neat bow where Ellis’ resilience finds him a new family who can live with his homosexuality because he’s just as much a tough man as any of them. A few of the more sympathetic characters get big speeches where they say things like “if we kicked out all the Marines who were gay, we wouldn’t have any Marines.” And whilst the climax isn’t not moving, largely thanks to fantastic performances by Pope and Union, it’s still much too straightforward since very few characters besides Ellis are given the growth required to properly sell it.
The end title cards reveal that Inspection is at least partly based on Bratton’s own experiences as a gay man in the military, and I can’t help but get the feeling he’s a little too wedded to those memories for his movie’s own good. He buys in a little too much to the self-justification each authority figure Ellis deals with spews, willing to blame a few bad apples who can nonetheless be won over if one simply refuses to quit playing their game. Not to mention that, again, this film is set in 2005, deep into an unjust war which showed no signs of ending, so the potential nuance of Ellis ending up where he is as a result of exhausting all other options is taken as a face value making-of-the-man story.
Lest one think I’m docking Inspection points for not being the right kind of political, it’s more that I find the film ultimately too simplistic to achieve the transcendence that Bratton wants it to. Its moral compass and insights into the subject matter arguably a near-decade out of date, conflict resolved too easily or cleanly, and its presentation also being very straightforward and respectable in the way that mid-10s indie dramas like this always looked.
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Conversely, this also makes the more stylised and complex elements of Bratton’s film stick out for the better. Animal Collective’s score is both militaristic and vulnerable in ways that are never belaboured. Very rarely, such as in the shower daydream where the lighting switches to a steamy queer hot-pink once we leave reality, Bratton hits upon an arresting image that teases a more interesting visual language I’d like to have seen explored. Pope’s lead turn is the one most responsible for adding complexity into a script which is lacking it, but that’s not to discount his performance of what’s on-page either; you could strip all dialogue out of the film yet still largely follow along Ellis’ self-confidence journey just from watching how Pope carries himself physically.
None of what I’ve written here should dissuade you from giving The Inspection a watch, if it interests you. Bratton’s movie is a solid work boasting a great central performance and some strong individual scenes. But it’s also not doing much that other queer dramas haven’t already done better elsewhere, and it actively tries to avoid any insights or critiques of its subject which could make for a more complex or emotionally rich film. Bratton has talent and his story is moving, but the way he’s translated that onto film is ultimately solid yet unremarkable.
The Inspection is playing in select cinemas from 17th February.