The Inspection


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Elegance Bratton’s The Inspection, starring Jeremy Pope will be the Closing Night selection of the 60th New York Film Festival
"There’s a depth and groundedness here which speaks to lived experience."

How do gay and bisexual people recognise each other in public? It can be complicated – gaydar is not as reliable as many people imagine – but there are little clues in body language, in movement, learned over time from observing others or unconsciously habituated in friendly circles. In hostile environments, unlearning them is vital. It becomes necessary to perform, to be constantly on guard, like a spy who needs to speak a foreign tongue as if they were a native. When we first see Ellis (Jeremy Pope) he’s ambling along, not thinking about it, easy in his movements. When he joins the marines, he absorbs the formality of military body language faster than all his peers and does his utmost to never, never let it slip.

Director Elegance Bratton served in the marines between 2005 and 2010, during the notorious ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ era when same sex attraction was grudgingly acknowledged but could still, if too obvious, lead to a dishonourable discharge. This semi-autobiographical film explores that experience and also goes some way to explaining why many LGBTQ+ people like him felt they had to join up despite the additional risks they faced in doing so. It’s a simple enough thing, but something which those with more privilege easily miss. In certain economic circumstances it’s one of very few ways out: a roof over one’s head and food in one’s belly take precedence over everything else. In a prejudiced society, LGBTQ+ people are more likely to be in that vulnerable position.

Bookending the story of Ellis’ experiences in the military are scenes of confrontation with his mother (played by Gabrielle Union), a woman whom, it transpires, threw him out of the house five years earlier because she couldn’t reconcile his sexuality with her religious beliefs. Evidence of her disgust, and her lingering hope that he will somehow become straight, is present in every tiny detail of their interaction. This informs not only his material situation – living alongside junkies in a homeless shelter before he signs up – but his complex emotional state. He is a young man looking for roots, for a sense of belonging. That’s something which the marine corps is famous for providing to those who make the grade, but is it achievable for somebody thus labelled as an outsider?

If you’ve ever had to try to hide like that, changing where you put your eyes, changing the way you move, you’ll know that it’s practically impossible to do it seamlessly. A momentary lapse of concentration and Ellis is found out, or at least suspected. He’s already made an enemy of his squad leader, Harvey (McCaul Lombardi), by coming second in the contest for the job and thereby making himself out as competition. A brutal beating follows, and it’s just the start of a campaign of abuse which, it becomes all too clear, could cost him his life.

When one is struggling to cope as an outsider, it’s easy to become so absorbed by the mechanics of survival that one misses the fact that others are struggling too. Ellis’ gradual process of learning to look beyond himself is part of his coming of age, and a key aspect of what the marines are trying to teach. In particular, this leads to him bonding with Muslim recruit Ismail (Eman Esfandi), who is always on the wrong side of drill sergeant Laws (Bokeem Woodbine) because he shares a religion with people who tried to kill Laws in Iraq. Small instances of bullying, cruelty and the more random misfortunes of life are everywhere, though, and a general fear of being seen to express emotion means that soldiers dare to comfort one another only for the briefest moments. Ritual behaviours like the sharing of pornography take the place of real human connection.

For Ellis, with his intense need for connection, this is a doubly treacherous environment. A burgeoning crush on drill sergeant Rosales (Raúl Castillo) threatens to tip him off balance. Could the attraction be mutual, or is he simply getting overwhelmed because Rosales is the only officer who shows him any kindness? With his hatred of bullies, Rosales makes no secret of his dislike for Laws, and yet the latter has his own, less obvious affection for the recruits. When Ellis finally stands up for himself, Laws looks on with pride.

Individual elements of this tale have been told many times before. Bratton admits that Full Metal Jacket was an influence, and yet there’s a depth and groundedness here which speaks to lived experience. It’s the details which make the film work, together with the ease with which Bratton segues between brutal reality and sensual fantasy sequences, reminding us, again, of the pressures of interior life in an externally constrained environment. The acting is exceptional all round, with a star-making turn from Pope, who is in almost every scene.

Bratton’s background is in documentaries, but he directs with assurance despite the difficulties inherent in teasing out something real from performers whose characters are also performing. Ellis’ outsider perspective lets us glimpse aspects of the training process which are usually hidden away. The Inspection is a powerful essay on the cost of belonging.

Reviewed on: 18 Nov 2022
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Drama based on the filmmaker's own experiences as a gay man in Marine Corps basic training following a decade of living on the streets.
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Director: Elegance Bratton

Writer: Elegance Bratton

Starring: Jeremy Pope, Gabrielle Union, Bokeem Woodbine, Raúl Castillo, McCaul Lombardi, Nicholas Logan, Eman Esfandi, Aaron Dominguez, Aubrey Joseph, Andrew Kai, Tyler Merritt, Steve Mokate, Brad Napp, Daniel Williamson, Wynn Reichert

Year: 2022

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: US

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