In 2005, while the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was still in effect, Ellis French (two-time Tony Award nominee Jeremy Pope in his first leading film role) enlists with the Marines. He does this partially to get off the streets and also to appease his mother (Gabrielle Union), who kicked him out when she learned he was gay. Once he enters though, Ellis gets found out almost immediately, and his fellow recruits (under the stern eye of their unit commander) are ruthless. Ellis’s journey is inspired by writer-director Elegance Bratton’s own experience in the Marine Corps, therefore it examines what surviving these harsh conditions can do to one’s soul. The Inspection, a hard-hitting deep dive into the deeply entrenched homophobia and masculine insecurities of the United States military, has a ring of truth about it in every frame. But while Ellis’s journey is very involving, the film struggles to come to a meaningful conclusion.
The Inspection is Bratton’s narrative feature debut, and his documentarian instincts are on full display in the filmmaking here. The film, like most Marines, is lean and mean, spending the bulk of its 95-minute runtime putting us through the Marine Corps boot camp right alongside Ellis as he attempts to navigate the numerous traps the DADT policy sets out for him. Cinematographer Lachlan Milne’s unflinching eye captures boot camp in all its grueling glory, but he and Bratton have concocted a few strikingly beautiful sequences of respite for Ellis. A nighttime bed inspection scene filled with red lights under bedcovers is a sneakily hilarious highlight, but the film’s best scene comes relatively early on. As Ellis and his corps shower, the scene transforms into a gay bathhouse, a look inside Ellis’s mind as he allows himself a solitary moment of respite before it all goes to hell as he is snapped back to reality, heightened by Oriana Soddu’s brutal editing.
None of this would work, though, without a strong central performance, and Pope delivers. The physical demands of the role are enormous, but the emotional ones are even more so. Pope is wonderful in a couple of scenes early on where he attempts performative masculinity. Still, he really opens up later on as Ellis realizes just what he has to suppress in order to survive, and deals with his growing attraction to his kindly drill instructor (Raúl Castillo). Even better are his scenes with Union as his no-nonsense but somewhat uncaring mother. Union goes all-in on deglamming, letting her skin look pockmarked and her hair frazzled, pitching her voice to sound frayed from the cigarettes she’s constantly smoking. It’s a somewhat tricky part, with a mixture of tough love and fearful hate, but Union has never been better, finding the perfect tonal balance so that Mrs. French never comes across as a monster, but as a complicated person who it’s hard to love. It’s hard not to want more of her, especially since their scenes together are the best-written in the film, where all of Bratton’s ideas about the pain and joy of self-acceptance come to their fullest fruition.
Bratton strikes a near-perfect tonal balance all the way through the film, finding the right scenes to play at a higher pitch and the right scenes to tone it down. The laser focus on boot camp proves just as much hindrance as a help, though, as it gives the film a narrative drive that feels slighted than it should be. Marine Corps boot camp is a rough ordeal, to be sure, and you feel as bruised, exhausted, and ultimately triumphant as Ellis does all the way through. But when the scenes between Ellis and his mother feel like the scenes with the most weight, it can’t help but feel somewhat unfinished at the end. There’s more to this story, more to Ellis’s relationship with his mother, with the Marine Corps, and with himself, that it feels like the film is missing. Despite that, though, The Inspection genuinely earns what catharsis it allows through its tightly-scripted journey. The film may not end as the best version of itself, but it doesn’t lack power, and marks a strong launching pad for both Bratton and Pope.
This review is from the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. A24 will release The Inspection only in theaters on November 18.