Michel Hazanavicius‘s The Search is basically an attempt to wring emotion out of the civilian agonies suffered during the second Chechen War of ’99. The problem with the film, which got booed a little bit this morning, is a determination on the director-writer’s part to deliver uplift moments, come hell or high water. The second problem is the director-writer’s insistence on spelling everything out with blunt expositional dialogue plus an occasional angry rant or two. As usual I could tell this film was a goner within five or ten minutes. I could hear the granules of sand leaking out of the hourglass and scattering on the floor. Too explicit, too on-the-nose, too much of an effort to elicit emotional reactions, too much “acting”…its just not a grade-A effort. From the very beginning it feels like a movie made by a guy who’s trying his utmost but doesn’t quite get how to make the movie that should have come out of this material.

Hazanavicius has said he wanted to make not just a realistic film but one that was also entertaining. That seems way off base. Who in their right mind would go to a film like this expecting to be “entertained”? Toward the end there’s a really questionable montage accompanied by Benjamin Britten’s “Cuckoo” that mixes shots of Chechen children with bodies of dead combatants and civilians. A couple of guys in the balcony started whistling in derision when this sequence completed.

The Search is a remake of Fred Zinneman‘s 1948 original in which Montgomery Clift searched Berlin for the mother of a young shell-shocked Jewish child. Here the setting is 1999 Chechnya with Berenice Bejo playing Clift, or more precisely a European Union human-rights observer. She comes upon a mute Chechen kid (Abdul-Khalim Mamatsuiev) who has seen his father and mother randomly shot to death by sadistic Russian troops and has gone on the run out of concern that he’ll be plugged also if the Russkis catch up with him. She takes him into her apartment and you know where this is going, etc.

Bejo converses every so often with a harried Red Cross official (Annette Bening) who doesn’t seem to do much except frown and fret and shake her head and behave irritably from time to time. I was muttering to myself, “When is Annette going to find a decent role in a decent film again? She’s making nothing but shit these days.”

Meanwhile the kid’s older sister (Zukhra Duishvili) is roaming around with their infant younger brother in her arms and showing Abdul’s photo to everyone she sees, etc. Obviously they’re going to find each other in the end. You can tell right away that The Search is not the kind of film to deny us that conventional, completely expected comfort.

There’s a concurrent side-story that is given equal weight, and which has been woven into the film to state that Russian soldiers, who are mostly presented as subhuman butchers and sadists throughout most of the film, aren’t entirely bad. Or at least that some of them started out as decent guys before being turned into fiends by the general brutality of the conflict. It makes this point (which is roughly the same theme that Kubrick used in Full Metal Jacket) by following Kolia (Maxim Emelianov), an easy-going Russian teenager who is more or less forcibly drafted in the the military. But he eventually becomes a monster, and there’s an editing trick (or cheat) at the very end that reveals just how venal and psychopathic this kid has become.

Honestly? Hazanavicus’s film didn’t strike me as being all that different from or much better than Renny Harlin‘s Five Days of War, which also focused on the general Russian-Chechen-Georgian conflict.