The Inspection is a new film from A24 that plays like a cross between the first half of Full Metal Jacket and the studio’s own Best Picture winner Moonlight.
Written and directed by Elegance Bratton, who based the script on his own experiences in the military, The Inspection stars Jeremy Pope as Ellis French, a young gay man who is estranged from his homophobic mother (Gabrielle Union) and has spent the last few years living in various shelters while in search of his purpose. His life is hard, and he could throw in the towel at any moment, but still, he fights. He wants his life to mean something. This is why he enlists in the Marines.
When French arrives at boot camp, he fits right in with the other guys, changing his vocal affect to disguise that he’s “gayer than two left shoes,” according to his own mother. Of course, French can only hide his natural urges for so long, and when his sexual preference is discovered, the repercussions are both swift and scary. Violence comes naturally to his fellow recruits.
The rest of the film sees him fighting to survive basic training under the leadership of a sadistic drill instructor named Laws (Bokeem Woodbine) and trying to win his corps over as they line up to take sides, including a Middle Eastern recruit (Eman Esfandi, also quite good) who can relate to being singled out, given the film’s 2005 setting.
There’s one other notable character in the ensemble aside from French’s fellow recruits, and that’s another superior named Rosales (Raul Castillo), who used to admire Laws before losing all respect for him. Though the film uses a little misdirection to make us think French and Rosales may hook up, the fact is that the older man took an oath to use his own strength to uplift the weak, and that is why he offers French a helping hand and a shoulder to cry on.
The Inspection is an impressive directorial debut from Bratton, who certainly suffered for his art. In delivering this searing portrait of masculinity and homophobia, he exhibits the confidence of a veteran filmmaker, even if the script begins to get away from him in the final act.
See, this isn’t so much a story about a young man trying to live out a dream to join the Marines as it is about a boy yearning to reconnect with his mother. As such, I thought the character came off as underwritten given where Bratton wants to take this story. Don’t get me wrong, Gabrielle Union is damn good as Ellis’ mother — better than I ever thought possible, and maybe even good enough for an Oscar nomination — I just wish she had more screen time since the film is ultimately about their relationship than the accomplishment of becoming a Marine.
Thankfully, that screen time is filled by Woodbine, who makes his intimidating presence felt at Laws, playing him with a glint of madness in his eyes. Laws isn’t trying to mold men out of boys, he’s trying to build monsters, and he’s not sure that French has what it takes to be a monster, though he is surprised when the young man opts not to turn him in following a training exercise gone wrong. While Laws is unquestionably a bully, his final lines indicate that the Marines are family to him, but you don’t get treated like family until you’re a Marine. Woodbine walks a fine line here, but he never allows Laws to become a caricature, and that careful calibration is a credit to his tremendous talent.
As for Pope, this is the first thing I’ve seen him in, and he’s absolutely a star, no doubt about it. Though he’s largely known as a Broadway performer, audiences outside of New York may recognize Pope from the Ryan Murphy shows Hollywood and Pose. Since playing singer Jackie Wilson in One Night in Miami, he has been cast as both Sammy Davis Jr. and Jean-Michel Basquiat in upcoming indie movies, so he already had a bright future ahead of him, but The Inspection only seals it.
Whether French is pleading with his mother, going nose to nose with Laws, or adding a little glam to the warpaint on his face, Pope is never anything less than completely convincing in the part, which could very well land him an Oscar nomination, though as always, that will depend on his competition more than anything else. But his gifts are up there on that screen for the world to see, and I can’t wait to see where his career takes him after those projects I mentioned above.
In terms of below-the-line contributors, experimental rock band Animal Collective delivers a strong score; there’s a certain sensuality to the imagery from Cinematographer Lachlan Milne (Minari), who finds the softness within the film’s high-testosterone setting; and French’s red hoodie (courtesy of Costumers Fernando Rodriguez and Merissa Siggins) really pops amidst all that camouflage, and its removal shows how French sacrifices his colorful identity, in a way, in exchange for a drab uniform.
While I’d like to think that America has come a long way since 2005, one of the messages of this film is that if gays weren’t allowed in the military, there wouldn’t be a military. A soldier’s sexual preference is completely irrelevant so long as the comrades on either side of them can trust them with their lives. That trust brings about acceptance, and by the end of The Inspection, French has earned that acceptance. It may not be from who he wants, but fortunately for him, family comes in many forms. Oorah, indeed.
The Inspection premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and will be released in U.S. theaters on Nov. 18 by A24.